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Protests Prompt Communications Cut to Libya’s Derna City

People who survived the deadly storm that hit Libya, protest outside the Al Sahaba mosque against the government in Derna, Libya on Sept. 18, 2023.

DERNA — Telephone and internet links were cut to Libya's flood-hit city of Derna Tuesday, a day after hundreds protested against local authorities they blamed for the thousands of deaths.

Around 1330 GMT, the national telecom company the Libyan Post Telecommunications & Information Company, or the LPTIC, which had earlier confirmed the service cut, said on its Facebook page that it was "gradually" restoring communication to the eastern regions.

Communication was "restored to the eastern regions after the cuts in the cables," the statement said, adding that "work is still ongoing to restore the rest of the routes."

VOA spoke with residents in Derna who confirmed communications have been restored, but said connection remained unstable.

A tsunami-sized flash flood broke through two ageing river dams upstream from the city on the night of September 10, razed entire neighborhoods and swept an untold thousands into the Mediterranean Sea.

On Monday, protesters massed at the city's grand mosque, venting their anger at local and regional authorities they blamed for failing to maintain the dams or to provide early warning of the disaster.

"Thieves and traitors must hang," they shouted, before some protesters torched the house of the town's unpopular mayor.

On Tuesday, phone and online links to Derna were cut, an outage the national telecom company LPTIC blamed on "a rupture in the optical fibre" link to Derna, in a statement on its Facebook page.

The telecom company said the outage, which also affected other areas in eastern Libya, "could be the result of a deliberate act of sabotage," and pledged that "our teams are working to repair it as quickly as possible."

Rescue workers have kept digging for bodies, with the official death toll at around 3,300 but many thousands more are missing since the flood sparked by torrential rains from Mediterranean Storm Daniel.

The huge wall of water that smashed into Derna completely destroyed 891 buildings and damaged over 600 more, according to a Libyan government report based on satellite images.

Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse. This story has been updated to include VOA's reach to local residents.

Libyans Angry with Authorities Over Floods Impact

FILE — Rescuers and relatives search for bodies in Derna after floods struck Libya, Sept. 15, 2023.

BENGHAZI — Libyan survivors of last week's flood, which killed thousands and devastated the east coast region, have expressed disbelief and anger towards authorities. Survivors say they spent two years demanding repairs of two upstream dams that burst after torrential rains on Sept. 10.

Residents of the Benghazi region, one of the areas in Libya's east affected by last week's floods, said they spent "two years" warning authorities that "the big dam already had leaks, even though it was only half full."

Abdelqader al-Omrani, a 48-year-old Benghazi resident who was hospitalized after the floods, said residents warned the municipality and demanded repairs.

Authorities now "have our deaths on their conscience," he added.

Omrani said that when his house, located close to one of the dams, was rapidly submerged late at night, he fled onto the roof terrace, then climbed onto a tree and scrambled up a mountain slope.

He said he later saw the lifeless bodies of six relatives amid the devastation of his hometown.

When the muddy waters finally receded, there were "no buildings, no trees, only the mountain and no living soul," he said, adding, "I experienced the apocalypse, without exaggeration."

Another patient, Ezzedine Miftah, voiced similar anger.

Speaking through his oxygen mask, Miftah said "those in charge did not do their job and let the dams burst."

The anger about the neglect was echoed Monday when protesters rallied in Derna, another flood-wrecked city in Libya's eastern region, and later torched the home of the mayor.

In response, the head of Libya's eastern administration, Osama Hamad dissolved Derna's municipal council.

The disaster has been blamed on the weather conditions that turned Storm Daniel into a hurricane-strength extreme weather event-but also on Libya's years of civil conflict, which damaged infrastructure, early-warning systems and emergency response programs.

The country now is split between two rival governments — the United Nations —recognized government based in Tripoli in the west, and an eastern administration backed by military strongman Khalifa Haftar.

UN: Derna Faces Threats of Disease Outbreaks

FILE — A man sits by the graves of flash-flood victims in Derna, Libya, Sept. 15, 2023.

DERNA — United Nations agencies warned Monday that Libya’s flood-stricken city of Derna, where thousands were killed a week ago, faces the threat of disease outbreaks that could bring a “second devastating crisis.”

U.N. agencies said the massive flash floods that struck Libya on Sept. 10 left over 30,000 residents of Derna traumatized, homeless and in need of clean water, food and basic supplies.

Rapidly rising waters burst two upstream river dams in the flood-stricken city, sending a late-night tidal wave crashing through the center of the coastal city and swept entire residential blocks into the Mediterranean.

Libyan authorities, local agencies and the World Health Organization, WHO, expressed concern "about the risk of disease outbreak, particularly from contaminated water and the lack of sanitation."

In a statement released Monday the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, UNSMIL, said it has sent nine teams in the North African nation to deliver aid and support those affected by the floods.

"The team continues to work to prevent diseases from taking hold and causing a second devastating crisis in the area," read the UNSMIL’s statement.

Other U.N. agencies, among them, UNICEF, UNHCR and WFP have been working in and around Derna for the past few days to help survivors.

UNSMIL said UNICEF teams delivered “medical kits to primary care services to support 15,000 people for three months,” while the UNHCR distributed supplies such as blankets, tarpaulins and kitchen equipment to 6,200 displaced families in the flood-stricken city and Benghazi.

Last week, the U.N. launched an aid appeal for more than $71 million for the emergency response in Derna and other parts of eastern Libya.

Libya Investigates Collapse of Dams After Deadly Flood

FILE - A handout picture provided by Tunisia's National Office of Civil Protection on September 15, 2023, shows members of its emergency teams assisting in relief work in Libya's city of Derna in the aftermath of a devastating flood.

DERNA, LIBYA — Libyan authorities have opened an investigation into the collapse of two dams that caused a devastating flood in a coastal city as rescue teams searched for bodies on Saturday, nearly a week after the deluge killed more than 11,000 people.

Heavy rains caused by Mediterranean storm Daniel caused deadly flooding across eastern Libya last weekend. The floods overwhelmed two dams, sending a wall of water several meters high through the center of Derna, destroying entire neighborhoods and sweeping people out to sea.

More than 10,000 people are missing, according to the Libyan Red Crescent. Six days on, searchers are still digging through mud and hollowed-out buildings, looking for bodies and possible survivors. The Red Crescent has confirmed 11,300 deaths so far.

Claire Nicolet, who heads the emergencies department of the Doctors Without Borders aid group, said that rescuers found “a lot of bodies” on Friday and were still searching.

“It was a big number ... the sea is still ejecting lots of dead bodies unfortunately,” she told The Associated Press.

She said major aid efforts were still needed, including urgent psychological support for those who lost their families. She said the burial of bodies is still a significant challenge, despite some progress in coordinating search and rescue efforts and the distribution of aid.

Authorities and aid groups have voiced concern about the spread of waterborne diseases and shifting of explosive ordnance from Libya's recent conflicts.

Haider al-Saeih, head of Libya’s center for combating diseases, said in televised comments Saturday that at least 150 people had suffered from diarrhea after drinking contaminated water in Derna. He urged residents to only drink bottled water, which is being shipped in as part of relief efforts.

Libya's General Prosecutor, al-Sediq al-Sour, said that prosecutors would investigate the collapse of the two dams, which were built in the 1970s, as well as the allocation of maintenance funds. He said prosecutors would investigate local authorities in the city, as well as previous governments.

“I reassure citizens that whoever made mistakes or negligence, prosecutors will certainly take firm measures, file a criminal case against him and send him to trial,” he told a news conference in Derna late Friday.

It's unclear how such an investigation can be carried out in the North African country, which plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. For most of the past decade, Libya has been split between rival administrations — one in the east, the other in the west — each backed by powerful militias and international patrons.

One result has been the neglect of crucial infrastructure, even as climate change makes extreme weather events more frequent and severe.

Jalel Harchaoui, an expert on Libya at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, said that an investigation could pose “a unique challenge” to judicial authorities, since it could lead to the highest ranks of leadership in eastern and western Libya.

Since 2014, eastern Libya has been under the control of Gen. Khalifa Hifter and his self-styled Libyan National Army. A rival government, based in the capital, Tripoli, controls most national funds and oversees infrastructure projects. Neither tolerates dissent.

“The key challenge to a thorough investigation is the Hifter coalition’s longstanding behavior; its historic lack of accountability writ large could obstruct the unearthing of truths,” Harchaoui said.

Local officials in the city had warned the public about the coming storm and last Saturday ordered residents to evacuate coastal areas in Derna, fearing a surge from the sea. But there was no warning about the dams, which collapsed early Monday as most residents were asleep in their homes.

A report by a state-run audit agency in 2021 said the two dams hadn't been maintained despite the allocation of more than $2 million for that purpose in 2012 and 2013.

A Turkish firm was contracted in 2007 to carry out maintenance on the two dams and build another dam in between. The firm, Arsel Construction Company Ltd., said on its website that it completed its work in November 2012. It didn't respond to an email seeking further comment.

Local and international rescue teams were meanwhile working around the clock, searching for bodies and potential survivors in the city of 90,000 people.

One man, Ayoub, said that his father and nephew died in Derna on Monday, a day after the family had fled flooding in the nearby town of Bayda. He said that his mother and sister raced upstairs to the roof, but the others didn't make it.

“I found the kid in the water next to his grandfather,” said Ayoub, who only gave his first name. "I am wandering around, and I still don’t believe what happened.”

Al-Sour, the top prosecutor, called on residents who have missing relatives to report to a forensic committee that works on documenting and identifying retrieved bodies.

“We ask citizens to cooperate and quickly proceed to the committee’s headquarters, so that we can finish the work as quickly as possible,” he said.

Libyan authorities have restricted access to the flooded city to make it easier for searchers to dig through the mud and hollowed-out buildings for the more than 10,000 people still missing. Many bodies were believed to have been buried under rubble or swept out into the Mediterranean Sea, they said.

The storm hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa, Marj and Shahatt. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in the region and took shelter in schools and other government buildings.

Dozens of foreigners were among those killed, including people who had fled war and unrest elsewhere in the region. Others had come to Libya to work or were traveling through in hopes of migrating to Europe. At least 74 men from one village in Egypt perished in the flood, as well as dozens of people who had traveled to Libya from war-torn Syria.

Search for Flood Survivors in Libya's Derna Continues, Death Toll Soars to 11,300

FILE - People look for survivors in Derna, Libya, Wednesday, Sept.13, 2023.

DERNA — Emergency teams on Friday continued their search for thousands of people still missing from the massive flash flood that swept the Libyan port city of Derna, with the death toll soaring to 11,300, according to the Libyan Red Crescent.

An enormous surge of water burst two upstream dams late Sunday and reduced Derna to an apocalyptic wasteland where entire city blocks and untold numbers of people were washed into the Mediterranean.

Marie el-Drese, the Libyan Red Crescent's secretary-general, told The Associated Press by phone that a further 10,100 people are reported missing in the Mediterranean city. Health authorities previously put the death toll in Derna at 5,500. The storm also killed about 170 people elsewhere in the country.

Calling the situation "catastrophic," the United Nations launched an appeal for more than $71 million to respond to the "most urgent needs of 250,000 people targeted out of the 884,000 people estimated to be in need."

An AFP journalist in Derna said central neighborhoods on either side of the river, which normally dries up at this time of year, looked as if a steam roller had passed through, uprooting trees and buildings and hurling vehicles onto the port's breakwaters.

"Within seconds the water level suddenly rose," recounted one injured survivor who said he was swept away with his mother in the late-night ordeal before they both managed to scramble into an empty building downstream.

"The water was rising with us until we got to the fourth floor, the water was up to the second floor," the unidentified man said from his hospital bed, in testimony published by the Benghazi Medical Center.

"We could hear screams. From the window, I saw cars and bodies being carried away by the water. It lasted an hour or an hour and a half — but for us, it felt like a year."

Hundreds of body bags now line Derna's mud-caked streets, awaiting mass burials, as traumatized and grieving residents search mangled buildings for missing loved ones and bulldozers clear streets of debris and mountains of sand.

In one shattered home, a rescue team pumped out the water to reveal a woman's lifeless arms still clutching her dead child, the AFP journalist reported.

Libyan Authorities: Derna Deaths ‘Could Reach 18,000-20,000'
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"This disaster was violent and brutal," said Yann Fridez, the head of the Libya delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had a team in Derna when the floodwaters hit.

"A wave seven meters (23 feet) high wiped out buildings and washed infrastructure into the sea. Now family members are missing, dead bodies are washing back up on shore and homes are destroyed."

Abdelaziz Bousmya, who lives in the Chiha neighborhood which was spared by the wall of water that devastated lower-lying districts, estimates that at least a tenth of the city's population of 100,000 were killed.

"I lost my friends, my loved ones — they are all either buried under the mud or got swept out to sea by the floodwaters," the 29-year-old said.

The floods were caused by hurricane-strength Storm Daniel, compounded by the poor infrastructure in Libya, which was plunged into turmoil after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

Libya is now divided between two rival authorities — the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government in Tripoli, and an administration based in the disaster-hit east.

U.N. World Meteorological Organization chief Petteri Taalas said many deaths could have been avoided if early warning and emergency management systems had functioned properly in the war-scarred country.

With better coordination, "they could have issued the warnings and the emergency management forces would have been able to carry out the evacuation of the people, and we could have avoided most of the human casualties," said Taalas.

FILE - A general view of the city of Derna is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 12., 2023.
FILE - A general view of the city of Derna is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 12., 2023.

Access to Derna remains severely hampered as roads and bridges have been destroyed and power and phone lines cut to wide areas, where at least 30,000 people are now homeless.

The United Nations said that "with the collapse of most roads, the municipality (of Derna) is urging relevant authorities to establish a sea corridor for emergency relief and evacuations."

Climate experts have linked the disaster to the impacts of a heating planet, combined with Libya's decaying infrastructure.

Storm Daniel gathered strength during an unusually hot summer and earlier lashed Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece, flooding vast areas and killing at least 27 people.

"Storm Daniel is yet another lethal reminder of the catastrophic impact that a changing climate can have on our world," said U.N. rights commissioner Volker Turk.

Information for this report came from AFP and the Associated Press.

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