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As Gulf Row Sharpens, Bahrain, Egypt Join Others In Blocking Al-Jazeera

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani at the 34th summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

Bahrain and Egypt have apparently joined Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in blocking access to websites run by the pan-Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera, part of a growing regional dispute with Qatar after an alleged hack of its state-run news agency.

The day before, on May 24, Qatar reported hackers had posted a fake story on its state-run news agency website claiming the country’s emir in alleged public remarks had criticized renewed tensions with Tehran, expressed sympathy for Hezbollah and Hamas, and suggested U.S. President Donald Trump might not last long in power.

Qatar immediately dismissed the report, insisting it was a fake story. But the issue did not go away.

Saudi media continued to air the report throughout the day. The incident revived suspicions that came to light three years ago, when several Gulf nations pulled their ambassadors from Qatar over similar worries about its regional policies.

The development suggested behind-the-scenes disarray among U.S. Gulf allies just days after Trump visited Riyadh. The trip was seen as full U.S. backing for Saudi Arabia and its policies in the region. Washington and Riyadh also made strong pledges to fight religious extremism. Qatar is seen as a backer of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This is believed to be the main reason relations have soured with Saudi Arabia.

Qatar has repeatedly and strongly denied that it funds extremist groups. However, it remains a key financial patron of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and has been the home of exiled Hamas official Khaled Mashaal since 2012. Western officials have also accused Qatar of allowing or even encouraging the funding of Sunni extremists like Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, once known as the Nusra Front.

The alleged remarks, attributed to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, are said to have been made during a graduation ceremony of Qataris doing national service.

A government spokesman told Reuters the emir had made no comments at the ceremony.

But Saudi Arabia’s Okaz daily thundered, “Qatar splits the ranks, sides with the enemies of the nation.” Saudi-backed Arab News said the comments sparked “outrage” among other Gulf states.

Online footage of Qatari state television's nightly newscast from May 23 -- before the alleged fake news appeared on the Qatari news website -- showed clips of Sheikh Tamim at the ceremony with the anchor not mentioning the comments, though a scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen had remarks similar to the alleged fake news. They included calling Hamas "the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" as well as saying Qatar had "strong relations" with Iran and the United States.

As Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia this week, Qatar issued a statement decrying "an orchestrated barrage of opinion pieces by anti-Qatar organizations" criticizing the country.

Qatar has been targeted by hackers before, however. In May 2016, hackers leaked sensitive information involving thousands of Qatar National Bank customers, purportedly including government employees and members of the ruling family. In 2012, a damaging virus crippled computer systems at Qatari natural gas producer RasGas soon after a similar attack on Saudi Arabia's state-run oil company.

Amid Qatar's denials, Saudi-owned satellite television networks immediately began airing repeated stories about the disputed comments. By early May 24, Internet users in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could not access websites run by Al-Jazeera, which is based in the Qatari capital, Doha.

On the morning of May 25, Bahrain and Egypt had also apparently blocked Al-Jazeera websites, although authorities did not immediately acknowledge it. Egypt also blocked other websites, as well, including that of Mada Masr, a popular online news outlet known for its investigative reports on the Egyptian government.

With reporting from Reuters, Ap