DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Iran's impoverished southeast experienced wide disruptions of internet service over the past week, internet experts said Saturday, as unrest gripped a remote province after fatal border shootings.
Several rights groups reported in a joint statement that authorities shut down the mobile data network in the restive province of Sistan and Baluchestan, calling the disruptions an apparent "tool to conceal" the government's harsh crackdown on protests convulsing the area.
The reports of internet interference came as Iranian authorities and semiofficial news agencies increasingly acknowledge the turmoil challenging local authorities in the southeast - a highly sensitive matter in a country that seeks to repress all hints of political dissent.
For three days starting Wednesday, the government shut down the mobile data network across Sistan and Baluchestan, where 96% of the population accesses the internet only through their phones, rights groups said, crippling the key communication tool. Residents reported a restoration of internet access early Saturday.
"This is Iran's traditional response to any kind of protest," Amir Rashidi from Miaan Group, a human rights organization that focuses on digital security in the Middle East, told The Associated Press on Saturday. "Shutting down the internet to block news and pictures getting out makes [authorities] feel more comfortable opening fire."
Police, protesters clash
The week saw a series of escalating confrontations between police and protesters. Crowds with light arms and grenade launchers descended on Kurin checkpoint near Iran's border with Pakistan on Thursday, Abouzar Mehdi Nakhaie, the governor of Zahedan, the provincial capital, said in comments carried by Iran's semiofficial ISNA news agency. The violence killed one policeman, he added.
Earlier this week, protesters attacked the district governor's office and stormed two police stations in the city of Saravan, outraged over the shootings of fuel smugglers trying to cross back into Iran from Pakistan on Monday. The border shootings and ensuing clashes killed at least two people, the government said. Many rights activists in the area reported higher death tolls without offering evidence.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, vowed Friday to investigate the deaths. Officials insisted that calm had returned to the streets.
NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access, called the reports of disruption credible but couldn't provide verification.
Given that authorities targeted the mobile network and not the landline, the disruption likely wouldn't appear on regular network data, said Mahsa Alimardani, researcher at Article 19, an international organization that fights censorship. The area already suffers from unreliable internet connections.
"This targeted shutdown was very intentional because they knew the realities of this province," where people are poor and use cheap phones as opposed to computers, Alimardani said.
Sistan and Baluchestan is one of most unstable and least developed parts of Iran. The relationship between its predominantly Sunni residents and Iran's Shiite theocracy has long been fraught. A low-level violent insurgency in Sistan and Baluchestan involves several militant groups, including those demanding more autonomy for the region.
The area also lies on a major trafficking route for drugs and petrol, which is highly subsidized in Iran and a key source of income for smugglers.