The aftermath of Libya’s worst ever natural disaster was evolving into a political storm on Tuesday, after demonstrators furious at the failure to protect their city from a flood torched the home of the mayor of Derna.
The administration in charge of eastern Libya said it had suspended the mayor and fired the entire city council, after angry demonstrators demanded punishment for officials who left residents in harm’s way.
The overnight protests marked the first unrest on the ground since a flood wiped out the centre of the city leaving thousands of residents confirmed dead and uncounted thousands more still missing. Following the protests, communications links with Derna were abruptly cut off on Tuesday morning.
Some journalists for media that have been broadcasting live from the city for days said on Tuesday that they had been ordered out. Officials in the eastern administration played this down or denied it.
Hichem Abu Chkiouat, minister of civil aviation in the administration that runs eastern Libya, told Reuters by phone that some reporters had been told to stay away from rescue operations, but denied this was linked to security or politics.
“It is an attempt to create better conditions for the rescue teams to carry out the work more smoothly and effectively,” he said. “The large number of journalists has become an impediment to the work of rescue teams.”
A spokesperson for the state-owned Libyan Telecommunications Holding Company, Mohamed Albdairi, told Libya Alahrar television that the communications had gone down in the area because some fiber optic cables had been severed. Engineers were investigating whether this was due to excavation work or sabotage, and looking to repair it, he said.
Monday’s demonstration was the first open expression of mass discontent since dams burst above Derna in a storm on Sept 10, unleashing a torrent of water that swept away the centre of the city.
Demonstrators crowded into the square in front of Derna’s landmark gold-domed Sahaba mosque chanting slogans. Some waved flags from atop the mosque’s roof. Later in the evening, they torched the house of Mayor Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, his office manager told Reuters.
The government administering eastern Libya said Ghaithi had been suspended as mayor, and all members of the Derna city council had been dismissed from their posts and referred to investigators.
A week after the disaster, swathes of Derna remain a muddy ruin, roamed by stray dogs, with families still searching for missing bodies in the rubble.
Angry residents say the disaster could have been prevented. Officials acknowledge that a contract to repair the dams after 2007 was never completed, blaming insecurity in the area.
Libya has been a failed state for more than a decade, with no government exercising nationwide authority since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011. Derna has been controlled since 2019 by the Libyan National Army which holds sway in the east. For several years before that it was in the hands of militant groups, including local branches of Islamic State and al Qaeda.
The demonstrators denounced the eastern-based parliament speaker Aguila Saleh, who has called the flood a natural catastrophe that could not be avoided.
“Aguila we don’t want you! All Libyans are brothers!” protesters chanted.
Mansour, a student taking part in the protest, said he wanted an urgent investigation into the collapse of the dams, which “made us lose thousands of our beloved people”.
Taha Miftah, 39, said the protest was a message that “the governments have failed to manage the crisis”, and that the parliament was especially to blame.
The full scale of the death toll has yet to emerge, with thousands of people still missing. Officials have given widely varying death tolls. The World Health Organization has confirmed 3,922 deaths.