Telephone and internet links were severed Tuesday to Libya’s flood-hit city of Derna, a day after hundreds protested there against local authorities they blamed for the thousands of deaths.
A tsunami-sized flash flood broke through two ageing river dams upstream from the city on the night of September 10 and razed entire neighbourhoods, sweeping untold thousands into the Mediterranean Sea.
Protesters massed on Monday 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 severed, 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 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.
Oil-rich Libya was torn by more than a decade of war and chaos after a 2011 NATO-backed uprising led to the ouster and killing of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Myriad militias, mercenary forces and jihadists battled for power, while basic services and the upkeep of infrastructure were badly neglected.
Libya remains split between a UN-backed and nominally interim government in Tripoli in the west, and another in the disaster-hit east backed by military strongman Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar’s forces seized Derna in 2018, then an Islamist stronghold, and with the reputation as a protest stronghold since Gaddafi’s days.
On Monday, demonstrators in Derna chanted angry slogans against the parliament in eastern Libya and its leader Aguilah Saleh.
“The people want parliament to fall,” they chanted.
Others shouted “Aguila is the enemy of God”, and a protest statement called for “legal action against those responsible for the disaster”.
Al-Masar television reported that the head of the eastern-based government, Oussama Hamad, responded by dissolving the Derna municipal council.
Libya watchers on Tuesday considered the telecom outage of Derna a deliberate act, intended to shut down the protesters’ voices.
Emadeddin Badi, Libya specialist at the Atlantic Council, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, of a “media blockade on #Derna in place now, communications cut since dawn.
“Have no doubt, this is not about health or safety, but about punishing the protesters in Derna.”
Tarek Megrisi, senior policy fellow at the European Council on International Relations, wrote on X of “extremely grim news from #Derna, still reeling from the horrific floods.
“Residents are now terrified of an imminent military crackdown, seen as collective punishment for yesterday’s protest and demands.”
Those warnings come as the city remains in desperate need.
Tens of thousands of residents are homeless and short of clean water, food and basic supplies amid a growing risk of cholera, diarrhoea, dehydration and malnutrition, UN agencies have warned.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday called the Derna flood a symbol of the world’s ills as he opened the annual General Assembly.
“Even as we speak now, bodies are washing ashore from the same Mediterranean Sea where billionaires sunbathe on their super yachts,” Guterres said.
“Derna is a sad snapshot of the state of our world – the flood of inequity, of injustice, of inability to confront the challenges in our midst.”