SRINAGAR, India/MUMBAI (Reuters) - Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir battled on Wednesday to restore mobile phone coverage paralyzed after a series of attacks by a previously unknown militant outfit on people who cooperated with service providers.
Networks have crashed across the region of seven million people, which has long suffered a separatist insurgency and been fought over repeatedly by India and Pakistan since independence and partition.
Two people have been killed and four others hurt in attacks by a group called Lashkar-e-Islam on landlords hosting cellphone towers and owners of recharge outlets, panicking others into shutting up shop.
As many as 2,500 telecom towers were affected, an industry group said, but authorities were bringing them back online gradually as police tightened security.
“We expect the problem to be resolved in the next few days, and normalcy to return to telecom services in the area by the end of the week,” said Rajan S. Mathews, head of the Cellular Operators Association of India.
Indian police, army and paramilitary forces in Kashmir, one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world, have stepped up patrols and detained more than a dozen people over the attacks.
The perpetrators have not been publicly identified and their motives are unknown, beyond warning posters they have hung in areas that they have attacked. The mystery deepened further when they were denounced by a militant umbrella group.
“There are black sheep using the name of militant groups and people must unmask such elements wherever they find them,” the United Jihad Council said in a statement to local newspapers.
Telecom towers may be shifted near security posts to improve safety, said K. Rajendra, director general of the Jammu & Kashmir police. “Wherever the need arises for providing security to towers, we will provide it,” he said.
Subscribers of six firms were affected by the disruptions: State-owned BSNL, Airtel, Aircel, Vodafone, Idea, and Reliance Communications, according to the operators association. Aircel is a unit of Malaysia’s Maxis Communications Bhd [MXSCC.UL].
One industry source estimated losses to the telecoms operators at as much as 800 million rupees ($13 million) a month if the outages persist. The impact on local businesses could be far higher.
“We are suffering huge losses,” said Mohammad Yasin Tuman, Managing Director of Mascot Travels in Srinagar, whose internet has been down for two days, stopping him from checking emails and making hotel bookings. “It is like a paralytic attack.”
Writing by Douglas Busvine