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Underwater mideast internet cables lines cut { February 6 2008 }

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Cut Middle East Internet cables remain a mystery
By Hannah Allam
McClatchy Newspapers

CAIRO, Egypt Repair ships arrived off Egypt's Mediterranean coast Tuesday to begin fixing the severed underwater cables that have bedeviled Internet service throughout the Middle East and India since last week.

The ships should help solve the mystery of what happened to the cables, two of four that were damaged within days of one another, a rare coincidence that so far has defied explanation.

It still will be days before Internet service returns to normal. Until then, millions of businesses and private users from Europe to India will continue putting up with blackouts and slow service. The cut cables threw India for a loop, with technicians scrambling to restore Web access to call centers, which handle customer service for many major Western companies.

International phone service, which also was disrupted, and Internet lines were rerouted through alternate cables, which quickly became overloaded. Officials said parts of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and India were still offline or receiving slow service. The Egyptian government has appealed to computer users to refrain from downloading MP3s or movies so as to ease the strain on backup systems.

Bad weather delayed the arrival of the ships off Alexandria, where two of the damaged cables are. The other breaks occurred on a looped cable that was cut in two places, off the coast of Dubai and between islands near Iran, where bad weather also is hampering repair efforts.

Maritime traffic or bad weather frequently damage underwater cables, though officials said it was rare to have cuts occur in quick succession, as with the four in the Middle East.

The timing, location and dramatic aftermath of the cable cuttings have led to murmurs of Western conspiracies to deprive Iran of Internet access or to allow American spies to monitor e-mail sent from the Islamic world.

"Is information warfare to blame ... or is it just a series of accidents?" an Australian newspaper asked in its Monday edition.

Egyptian transportation authorities viewed footage of the sites off the coast of Alexandria and observed no ships or other vessels in the area 12 hours before or 12 hours after the cables were cut. The government announced that maritime traffic wasn't to blame for those two breaks, quashing the initial theory that the anchor of a passing ship had caused the damage.

"The area is also marked on maps as a no-go zone and it is therefore ruled out that the damage to the cables was caused by ships," a statement from Egypt's communications ministry said.

An official at FLAG, an India-based company that owns two of the severed cables, called the timing "a coincidence" and said he wouldn't "get into conspiracy theories."

Amr Badawi, the president of Egypt's communications regulatory authority and part of the communications ministry's crisis team, predicted that it would take up to four days for workers to fix the two lines near Alexandria. After that, he said, investigators are expected to release a detailed report of how the cuts occurred.

"This region is always full of conspiracy theories," Badawi said with a chuckle. "We are scientific people, so we'll wait for the report's results. The cuts could have resulted from natural causes. There were many storms at that time."

Copyright 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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