In an effort to quell popular outrage over their failure to stop Libya’s worst-ever natural disaster, the authorities cut down communications, expelled some journalists, and barred a U.N. aid team from the flood-devastated city of Derna on Tuesday.
Furious Derna citizens staged street protests and set fire to the mayor’s house overnight a week after a flood destroyed much of the city center. They charge the government with neglecting to keep up the dams that shielded the city and failing to get people out of the way before the storm.
By Tuesday morning, things had calmed down once more, but phone and internet connections were down. The mayor was reportedly placed on administrative leave, and the whole local council was purportedly dismissed.
Some journalists for media, including Arabic-language channels that have been broadcasting from the city for days, reported on Tuesday that they had been ordered out.
The overnight protests, the first sign of unrest on the ground since the flood, showed the degree to which the disaster poses a challenge to the authorities in Libya’s east, now under control of regional strongman Khalifa Haftar.
“Haftar’s forces are under pressure to show they have control of the situation, and that they can handle the fallout. All eyes will be on them to see if they go for repression,” said Tim Eaton of Britain’s Chatham House think tank, who added that harsh measures would be a “miscalculation”.
“This will remain a seed of anger and contention for a long time to come.”
Officials offered benign explanations for the communications cut-off and the apparent orders to some journalists to move out of the Mediterranean coastal city of 120,000 people. There was no immediate explanation for blocking the U.N. mission.
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.
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.”
Officials have given widely varying death tolls since dams above Derna burst in a storm on Sept. 10, unleashing a torrent that swept away the heart of the city. The World Health Organization has confirmed 3,922 deaths. Thousands more are missing, with countless bodies washed into the sea.