Protests have erupted in the eastern Libyan city of Derna with locals demanding the removal of those in power, a week after torrential rain caused two dams to collapse, sweeping whole neighborhoods into the Mediterranean Sea and killing thousands.
Demonstrators vented their anger at officials, including the speaker of the eastern-based Libyan parliament, Aguila Saleh, outside the Sahaba Mosque. Videos circulating on social media showed protesters climbing onto the golden dome of the Sahaba Mosque, a Derna landmark, chanting anti-government slogans and singing: “Oh my homeland… We will stay here until the pain goes away.”
A week on from the catastrophic flooding, and as the immediate search for survivors begins to wind down, the citizens of Derna are confronting fresh horrors, from outbreaks of waterborne diseases to landmines displaced by the rains. A senior Libyan National Army official told CNN that certain areas are being cleared for security and health reasons.
Monday’s protests marked the first large demonstrations since the flood, as citizens attempt to hold leaders across the divided country accountable for the bursting of the dams that some feel could have been avoided.
The full scale of the disaster is not yet clear, with thousands of people still missing. While officials have given hugely different death tolls, the United Nations has confirmed at least 3,985 deaths.
Later in the evening, protesters set fire to the house of the man who was Derna’s mayor at the time of the flood, Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, his office manager told Reuters.
Hichem Abu Chkiouat, a minister in the eastern Libyan government, said Gaithi had been suspended from his post. Reuters could not immediately reach Ghaiti for comment.
The outpourings of anger may swell beyond Derna. Some protesters outside the Sahaba Mosque called on the “people of Benghazi,” Libya’s second largest city, to “come out and join in protest.”
Much of the anger was directed towards Saleh, speaker of the eastern-based Libyan parliament, after he attempted to deflect blame for the disaster from authorities who oversaw the city’s infrastructure.
“The disaster that struck the country is a natural one… It is in God’s hand,” Saleh told a parliamentary session on Thursday, urging Libyans not to “exchange accusations” over who is responsible for it.
Saleh also called for a “comprehensive investigation to hold those who were negligent accountable.”
However, some Libyans have demanded that the investigation into what caused the two dams to collapse be carried out by international organizations, due to a lack of trust in local authorities which have been accused of failing to prevent the breach.
In a paper published last year, Abdelwanees Ashoor, a hydraulic engineer at Omar Al-Mukhtar University in Libya, warned that the Derna “area has a high potential for flood risk,” and that the dams “needed periodic maintenance” to prevent disaster.
“We just ask that if there will be any rebuilding efforts that no Libyan company be ever involved,” Mohammed Ben Hamad, who was present at the protest Monday, told Reuters.
“This is because everyone in Derna – from the head of the municipality to all of the officials – are corrupt. Derna should either be left as it is, or a foreign company should be involved. The souls of the martyrs will not be in vain,” he said.
Libya’s vulnerability to extreme weather is increased by its long-running political conflict, which has seen a decade-long power struggle between two rival administrations.
The UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU), led by Abdulhamid Dbeibeh, sits in Tripoli in northwest Libya, while its eastern rival is controlled by commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), who support the eastern-based parliament led by Osama Hamad.
Derna, which lies some 300 kilometers (190 miles) east of Benghazi, falls under the control of Haftar and his eastern administration.
A CNN team on the ground has witnessed growing confusion among local residents, after rumors circulated that officials were set to order the evacuation of Derna.
Khalifa Alobeidi, head of the media office of the LNA General Command, told CNN that certain areas were being cleared amid as survivors face health and security threats.
The decision means there will be restricted access to the worst-affected parts of the city. Alobeidi said rescue crews will be able to continue their work.
CNN saw uniformed military officers telling two men on a street wrecked by the flood to leave the area. The few remaining residents of similarly damaged streets told CNN they haven’t been informed of any evacuation orders. Several residents told CNN they want to stay in their homes, despite the destruction of the ground floors.
The city was much quieter on Tuesday than on previous days since the flooding, with fewer cars and pedestrians on the streets.
Phone networks have been disrupted due to fuel, generator and infrastructure issues, the LNA official said. Mobile networks have been down since 1 a.m. local time, a few hours after protesters in the city called for officials to take responsibility for the damage.
The LNA official said authorities have decided to limit the number of journalists in Derna. Some have been allowed to stay, including CNN, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.
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