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Yemen Houthi rebels disrupting internet service nationwide

Communications ministry, run by partisans of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh until he was slain, is under control of Houthi rebels
Yemeni man in traditional attire browses internet at computer club in Sanaa before war (AFP)

Yemen's Houthi rebels have been disrupting internet access nationwide as they consolidate their grip of the capital, residents and an Arab digital rights organisation told AFP on Saturday.

"My Facebook page and Whatsapp (messenger) are the most important tools in my life and I can barely access them," said Mahmoud Mohammed, an aid worker in the rebel-held port city of Hodeida.

He said he could only access Whatsapp - a ubiquitous form of communication throughout the Arab World - through a VPN (virtual private network) and that the outage was hampering his work.

"It is very, very hard to get online and send a message. Everything is shut down. You can't open news sites," said Mohammed Abdullah, a resident of the capital Sanaa.

Yemen's communications ministry, which had been run by partisans of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh until he was slain on Monday, is now firmly under the control of the Houthi rebels and they have been tightening their grip on all institutions.

Ministry employees not affiliated with the rebels said they were no longer welcome at work.

The Beirut-based Social Media Exchange (SMEX), which advocates for digital rights across the Arab World, said the Houthis completely shut down the internet on Thursday night and access remains difficult nationwide.

"Yemen has only one internet service provider, YemenNet, and any group or entity that controls it or has influence over it has the ability to disrupt access to the internet, so the disruptions are nationwide and not limited to areas under the control of the Houthis," said Lara Bitar, the lead researcher at SMEX.

Residents in areas outside Houthi control confirmed that government-held areas were also experiencing patchy coverage. 

Dread of shutdown

"We are hearing from our contacts in Yemen that there is a sense of dread over a looming internet shutdown, which could be much more prolonged than Thursday night's," Bitar told AFP.

The digital rights group warned that the interruptions not only threatened media freedom, but also civilian access to emergency services.

"Shutdowns or slowdowns usually indicate potential for intensified acts of repression or violence," Bitar said.

"Yemenis we've spoken to have told us they believe recent internet disruptions are tied to attempts to cover up atrocities and crimes," she said.

Over the past week, two Sanaa-based television stations have come under assault: Houthis attacked the Yemen Today station of their former allies, detaining 41 journalists and staff, and the Saudi-led coalition bombed the rebel-held national broadcaster on Saturday, killing four guards.

Tensions have soared in Sanaa since the Houthi-Saleh alliance unravelled, culminating in the former leader's slaying.

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