Nearly two million lose mobile access in war-torn east Ukraine

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Almost two million people lost their mobile phone access in war-torn eastern Ukraine after the last major provider in the devastated region suffered a fibre optic line cut. Vodafone Ukraine told press on Tuesday it could not say how long it would take to restore service because its workers had not received security assurances from the warring parties in a conflict has killed more than 10,000 people in nearly four years.

Mobile phones in the insurgent-controlled parts of Lugansk and Donetsk went dead on January 11. A spokeswoman said “nearly two million people have lost access to service”. Vodafone said it had appealed to the warring sides and monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to get its repair crews safe access to the damaged line.

“It has been futile so far,” Vodafone spokeswoman Viktoria Ruban wrote on Facebook. But the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic accused Kiev of deliberately cutting the phone link as part of its “information warfare”. “Kiev has halted Vodafone’s work on the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” Alexander Zakharchenko said.

The outage means families living on different sides of the front have lost the ability to communicate. The two remaining mobile phone carriers are operated by the Russian-backed separatist authorities and cannot place calls into Kiev-controlled regions.

“When people who live in the same country 30-40 kilometres (20-25 miles) apart cannot call each other, the situation is completely surreal,” said Danil, a 28-year-old who left for a safer, Kiev-held part of the east but still has family in the insurgents’ de facto capital of Donetsk.

The departure of Ukraine’s KyivStar in 2015 and Lifecell last year left Vodafone as the only major provider in the region of an estimated 3.5 million people. The Moscow-backed leadership in Donetsk has launched its own carrier called Phoenix to fill the void. But it has only 600,000 subscribers and is already operating at its limits. “The more people join Phoenix, the worse it works,” said Viktoria, a 19-year-old student.

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