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Traffic disrupted between Europe and Middle East

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Ships have begun repair work on three undersea cables that carry voice and internet traffic between Europe and the Middle East and Asia after they were severed on Friday.

A robot submarine dispatched by France Telecom has arrived at a location in the Mediterranean Sea where it will locate the ends of two broken cables and bring them to the surface and reconnect them, the BBC reports. A separate ship commissioned by Reliance Communications of India is on its way to repair the third cable, Reuters said. The companies said the work wasn't likely to be completed until the end of the year, a delay that means communications in the Middle East and parts of South Asia could remain spotty.

A submarine robot named Hector is beginning the repairs on the SeaMeWe-3 and SeaMeWe-4, which are cables owned by a consortium of telecommunications companies and operated by France Telecom. A third cable known as FLAG is under separate ownership and operated by a unit of Reliance. The cables were cut within a few minutes of each other, sparking theories that a a fishing net or anchor of a single ship cut all three.

Internet communications to the same region took a major hit in January when four underseas cables were seriously damaged in less than a week. The number of failures in such a short period of time stoked conspiracy theories that they were the result of saboteurs, but experts say it's not uncommon to experience multiple breaks in region given the narrowness and shallowness of the route the cables take.

"The odds are whatever cut one cable cut the other two at the same time, be it a fishing boat, or be it an anchor," said Stephan Beckert, a research director at the TeleGeography Research Group, which provides consulting to major network operators.

For the time being, some companies are re-routing traffic between Europe and Asia, and between Europe and the Middle East, through the US or other out-of-the-way destinations. Companies that don't have redundancy contingencies in place are simply unreachable.

Telecommunications companies are in the process of building four new cables in the region, which are slated to be up and running in the next nine to 18 months, Beckert said. Until then, damage to any of the cables currently in use is likely to result in significant disruptions. ®

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