Communication Outage Complicates Search Efforts in Libya

By Samy Magdy | September 22, 2023

CAIRO (AP) — A day-long communication outage in a flood-stricken city in eastern Libya further complicated the work of teams searching for bodies under the rubble and at sea Wednesday.

The country’s chief prosecutor, meanwhile, vowed to take “serious measures” to deliver justice for the victims of the floods, which killed thousands of people and devastated the coastal city of Derna more than a week ago.

The outage was caused by fiber-optic cables being severed Tuesday, Libya’s state- owned telecommunications company said. Engineers were investigating to determine whether it happened because of digging for bodies or was sabotage, the company’s spokesman, Mohamed al-Bdairi, told a local television station.

Internet and phone service were knocked out, with residents and journalists unable to reach those inside Derna. Authorities said communications with the city were restored Wednesday evening.

Heavy rains triggered deadly flooding across eastern Libya earlier this month. The storm overwhelmed two dams in the first hours of Sept. 11, sending a wall of water several meters high through the center of Derna, destroying entire neighborhoods and sweeping people out to sea.

The floods inundated as much as a quarter of the city, officials have said. Thousands of people were killed, with many dead still under the rubble or at sea, according to search teams. Government officials and aid agencies have given varied death tolls ranging from about 4,000 to over 11,000.

At least 40,000 people were displaced in the area, including 30,000 in Derna, according to the U.N.’s migration agency. Many people have moved to other cities across Libya, hosted by local communities or sheltered in schools.

Local authorities said they have isolated the worst damaged part of Derna amid growing concerns about potential infection by waterborne diseases. Health authorities have launched a vaccination campaign that initially targeted search and rescue teamed along with children in Derna and other impacted areas.

The protesters demanded an investigation into the disaster to be accelerated and called for the reconstruction of Derna to be under United Nations supervision.

General Prosecutor al-Sidiq al-Sour has launched an investigation into the collapse of the two dams in Derna. In comments to a local television station Wednesday, he vowed to take “serious measures” to deliver justice for the victims of the floods.

“It’s a great catastrophe, and the casualty toll is significant. Certainly, if measures had been taken at the right time in the past years, a catastrophe with such magnitude wouldn’t happen,” he said.

The dams were built by a Yugoslav construction company in the 1970s above Wadi Derna, which divides the city. They were meant to protect the city from flash floods, which are not uncommon in the area. The dams were not maintained for decades, despite warnings by scientists that they may burst.

Many residents, however, called for an international investigation, a move that shows the deep mistrust in state institutions in a country divided between rival government for most of the past decade.

Such a call received the support of the Supreme Council of State, an advisory body based in the capital of Tripoli. The council said Wednesday that a “thorough international investigation” is needed to determine reasons behind the crisis in Derna.

Humanitarian aid, meanwhile, continued to flow into Libya. A U.S. shipment that included shelter sheeting, repair kits, hygiene supplies, blankets and water containers arrived Wednesday in the eastern city of Benghazi, said Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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