DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Impoverished southeastern Iran has seen major disruptions in internet service over the past week, internet experts said on Saturday as riots struck the remote province after deadly border shootings.

Several right-wing groups said in a joint statement that the authorities had shut down the mobile data network in troubled Sistan and Balochistan provinces, calling the disruption an obvious “tool to hide the government’s crackdown on protests that rocked the area.

Internet disruption reports come from Iranian authorities and semi-official news outlets increasingly recognizing the turmoil challenging local authorities in the southeast – a highly sensitive issue in a country that seeks to stifle any evidence of political disagreement.

As of Wednesday, the government closed the mobile data network in Sistan and Balochistan for three days, where 96% of the population only access the Internet via their phones. The residents reported a restoration of Internet access early on Saturday.

“This is Iran’s traditional response to any kind of protest,” Amir Rashidi of the Miaan Group, a human rights organization focused on digital security in the Middle East, told The Associated Press on Saturday. “By shutting down the internet to block messages and pictures from coming out, (authorities) are more comfortable opening fire.”

A number of escalating confrontations between police and protesters broke out during the week. Crowds with light weapons and grenade launchers descended on the Kurin checkpoint near Iran’s border with Pakistan on Thursday, Abouzar Mehdi Nakhaie, the governor of Zahedan, the provincial capital, said in comments on the semi-official Iranian news agency ISNA. The violence killed one police officer, he added.

Protesters attacked the district governor’s office earlier this week and stormed two police stations in Saravan city. They were outraged by the shooting of fuel smugglers trying to return to Iran from Pakistan on Monday. At least two people were killed in the border shootings and the subsequent clashes, the government said. Many human rights defenders in the region reported higher deaths without providing evidence.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh vowed on Friday to investigate the deaths. Officials insisted that calm return to the streets.

The Iranian government previously cut internet access and cell phone service during tense times. In autumn 2019, for example, Iran imposed a near-nationwide internet blackout when anti-government protests sparked by a rise in fuel prices struck the capital of Tehran and other cities. Hundreds of people were reportedly killed in the act across the country.

NetBlocks, which monitors global Internet access, called the reports of malfunctions “credible” but was unable to conduct a verification.

Given the authorities were targeting the cellular network rather than the landline, the interference would likely not appear in regular network data, said Mahsa Alimardani, researcher at Article 19, an international organization fighting censorship. The area was already suffering from unreliable internet connections.

“This targeted shutdown was very deliberate because they knew the realities of this province,” Alimardani said. The people there are poor and use cheap phones as opposed to computers.

Sistan and Balochistan are one of the most unstable and least developed parts of Iran. The relationship between the predominantly Sunni residents and the Shiite theocracy of Iran has long been strained. Several militant groups are involved in a low-level violent uprising in Sistan and Balochistan, including those calling for greater autonomy for the region.

The area is also on an important trade route for drugs and gasoline, which is heavily subsidized in Iran and an important source of income for smugglers.

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