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Mon 4 Feb 2008 04:48 PM

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Flag plays down net blackout conspiracy theories

Damage to undersea cables sparks fears US-Israel targeting Iran communications.

Flag Telecom on Monday played down conspiracy theories over the recent damage to undersea cables that has seriously disrupted internet and international telecoms services across the region.

Two intercontinental cables connecting Europe and Asia were cut off the coast of Egypt on Wednesday, followed by breaks in two more cables off the UAE coast on Friday. Flag owns two of the affected cables.

The initial breaks affected internet access and international calls in Egypt, the Gulf and south Asia, while disruption resulting from damage to the latter two was centred around the Gulf region.

The location of the breaks and short space of time in which they have happened has sparked fears the cables were intentionally damaged by the US and Israel to deprive Iran of internet access.

"It seems now to be way beyond the realm of coincidence that a further 4th critical international communications cable should break within seven days," one ArabianBusiness.com reader commented.

"Clearly Iran, who was most affected, would gain nothing from such an action and is perhaps the target of those responsible," said another reader.

Those theories were fuelled further on Monday when Egypt said damage to the cables in the Mediterranean Sea was not caused by ships, as previously thought.

Egypt's Transport Ministry said footage recorded by onshore video cameras of the location of the cables shows no maritime traffic in the area when the cables were damaged.

"The ministry's maritime transport committee reviewed footage covering the period of 12 hours before and 12 hours after the cables were cut and no ships sailed the area," a statement by the Communications Ministry said.

"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."

It is not clear how badly Iran's internet access has been affected by the cable breaks.

The Iranian embassy in Abu Dhabi told ArabianBusiness.com that "everything is fine", but internet connectivity reports on the web, citing a router in Tehran, appear to indicate that there is currently no connection to the outside world.

No one at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi was immediately available to comment.

A spokesperson for Flag said the cause of the breaks will not be known until repair ships reach the site of the damage.

The spokesperson admitted it did seem like a bit of a coincidence that all four were damaged within such a short space of time, but said it would be difficult to find the exact location of the cables.

"I think it is doubtful [the cable damage was intentional]," the spokesperson told ArabianBusiness.com.

Repair ships are expected to arrive at the site of the breaks in the Mediterranean on Tuesday and Friday.

The breaches are in segments of two intercontinental cables known as Sea-ME-We-4 and Flag Europe-Asia.

A ship was expected to depart Abu Dhabi port on Monday to fix the break in the third cable, called Falcon, off the coast of Dubai between the UAE and Oman.

The fourth break is located between the Qatari island of Haloul and the UAE island of Das. The cause of damage is not yet known, but ArabianBusiness.com has been told unofficially the problem is power related.

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