Libya’s eastern government has ordered journalists to leave Derna after angry protests against the authorities a week after a flood killed thousands of residents.
Hundreds of people gathered on Monday outside Sahaba mosque in the city, chanting slogans. Some sat on its gold-domed roof. Later in the evening, a crowd set fire to the house of the man who was Derna’s mayor at the time of the disaster, Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi.
The protesters blame the authorities for the destruction, during which most of the city centre was washed away. At least 4,000 people have been confirmed dead, with a further 4,300 missing. Nearly 40,000 have been left homeless, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Residents want an independent inquiry on what went wrong, and for the city to be rebuilt under international supervision. The demands received extensive media coverage. Unusually, national TV channels opposed to the authorities were able to broadcast from Derna.
Hichem Abu Chkiouat, a minister in the eastern government, said on Tuesday his government had instructed local and foreign journalists to leave the city by 1pm. According to reports, Derna’s internet and mobile networks had been switched off.
Chkiouat said the measure was necessary because large numbers of reporters were impeding rescue work. Officials cited health reasons and the fear of an epidemic – a claim denied by the Tripoli-based National Centre of Disease Control.
“It is an attempt to create better conditions for the rescue teams, to carry out their rescue work more smoothly and effectively,” Chkiouat said, speaking by phone to Reuters.
Derna is in north-eastern Libya, a part of the country controlled by the military commander Khalifa Haftar. It is overseen by a government established in parallel to the internationally recognised administration in Tripoli, a 10-hour drive to the west.
The media clampdown follows reports that police officers in Derna detained and questioned Libyan journalists over the weekend, holding them for several hours. Libya’s missions abroad continue to issue visas but local officials have stopped giving reporters security permits.
Earlier, Chkiouat said Ghaithi, Derna’s mayor, had been suspended. Ghaithi could not be reached for comment.
Monday’s protest marked the first large demonstration since the flood, which swept through Derna when two dams in the hills outside the city failed during a powerful storm, unleashing a devastating torrent.
The crowds called for the resignation of the head of the eastern-based Libyan parliament, Aguila Saleh. The government in eastern Libya said the prime minister, Usama Hamad, had dismissed all the members of Derna’s municipal council and referred them for investigation.
“Aguila we don’t want you. All Libyans are brothers,” protesters chanted, calling for unity in a country left politically fractured by more than a decade of conflict and chaos.
Mansour, a student taking part in the demonstration, said he wanted an urgent investigation into the collapse of the dams, which “made us lose thousands of our beloved people”.
Another protester, Taha Miftah, said the demonstration was a message that “the governments have failed to manage the crisis”, adding that the parliament was especially to blame.
The full death toll has yet to emerge and officials have given widely varying numbers. The Libyan Red Crescent has said at least 11,300 people died and more than 10,000 are missing. The World Health Organization has confirmed 3,922 deaths.
Last week, Saleh sought to deflect blame from authorities, describing the flood as an “unprecedented natural disaster” and saying people should not focus on what could or should have been done.
But commentators have drawn attention to a series of flood warnings, including an academic paper published last year by a hydrologist outlining the city’s vulnerability to floods and the urgent need to maintain the dams that protected it.
Swathes of Derna remain a muddy ruin roamed by stray dogs, with families still searching for 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 and blamed insecurity.
Libya has been a failed state for more than a decade, with no government exercising nationwide authority since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011. The Libyan National Army, which holds sway in the east, has controlled Derna since 2019.
For several years before that it was in the hands of militant groups, including local branches of Islamic State and al-Qaida.