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At least 2,300 dead in ‘epic’ Libya floods, thousands more missing

BENGHAZI – At least 2,300 people were killed in Libya and thousands more were reported missing after catastrophic flash floods broke river dams and tore through an eastern coastal city, devastating entire neighbourhoods.

As concern spreads, multiple nations offered to urgently send aid and rescue teams to help the war-scarred country that has been overwhelmed by what one United Nations official labelled “a calamity of epic proportions”.

Massive destruction shattered the Mediterranean coastal city of Derna, which is home to 100,000 people.

Multi-storey buildings on the river banks collapsed, and houses and cars vanished in the raging waters.

Libyan emergency services on the ground reported an initial death toll of more than 2,300 in Derna alone.

They said more than 5,000 people remained missing, while about 7,000 were injured.

“The situation in Derna is shocking and very dramatic,” said Mr Osama Ali of the Tripoli-based Rescue and Emergency Service. “We need more support to save lives because there are people still under the rubble and every minute counts.”

The floods were caused by torrential rains from storm Daniel, which made landfall in Libya on Sunday after earlier lashing Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Derna, 250km west of Benghazi, is ringed by hills and bisected by what is normally a dry riverbed in summer. But it turned into a raging torrent of mud-brown water that also swept away several major bridges.

The number of dead given by the Libyan service roughly matched the grim early estimates provided by the Red Cross and by the local authorities in the eastern region, who have warned the death toll may yet rise further.

“The death toll is huge and might reach thousands,” Mr Tamer Ramadan, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Libya, told reporters earlier.

“We confirm from our independent sources of information that the number of missing people is hitting 10,000 people so far,” Mr Ramadan said via video link from Tunisia, which borders Libya.

‘Catastrophic’ situation

Footage on Libyan TV showed dozens of bodies, wrapped in blankets or sheets, on Derna’s main square, awaiting identification and burial, and more bodies in Martouba, a village about 30km to the south-east.

More than 300 victims were buried on Monday, many in mass graves.

But vastly greater numbers of people were feared lost in the waters of the river that empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

Libya, an oil-rich country in North Africa, is still recovering from the years of war and chaos that followed the 2011 Nato-backed popular uprising which toppled and killed long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The country is now divided between two rival governments – the UN-brokered, internationally recognised administration based in the capital Tripoli in the west, and a separate administration in the eastern region impacted by the flood disaster.

Access to the eastern region is limited. Phone and online links have been largely severed.

But the administration’s Prime Minister Oussama Hamad has reported “more than 2,000 dead and thousands missing” in Derna alone.

The military strongman backing the eastern administration, Mr Khalifa Haftar, issued a similar warning.

A Derna city council official described the situation as “catastrophic” and asked for a “national and international intervention”, speaking to TV channel Libya al-Ahrar.

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Rescue teams from Turkey have arrived in eastern Libya, according to the authorities.

The UN and several countries have offered to send aid, among them Algeria, Egypt, France, Italy, Qatar, Tunisia and the United States.

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Surrounded by water

Derna resident Saleh al-Obaidi said he had managed to flee with his family, though houses in a valley near the city had collapsed.

“People were asleep and woke up and found their homes surrounded by water,” he told Reuters.

Mr Ahmed Mohamed, another resident, said: “We were asleep, and when we woke up, we found water besieging the house. We are inside and trying to get out.”

Witnesses said the water level had reached 3m.

West of Derna, visuals showed a collapsed road between the port town of Sousse and Shahhat, home to the Greek-founded and Unesco-listed archaeological site of Cyrene.

Libya’s eastern-based Parliament declared three days of mourning. Mr Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, Prime Minister of the interim government in Tripoli, also declared three days of mourning in all the affected cities, calling them “disaster areas”.

Four major oil ports in Libya – Ras Lanuf, Zueitina, Brega and Es Sidra – were closed from Saturday evening for three days, two oil engineers told Reuters.

Libya’s National Petroleum Company, which has its main fields and terminals in eastern Libya, declared “a state of maximum alert” and suspended flights between production sites where it said activity was drastically reduced.

Search and rescue operations were ongoing, witnesses said. The authorities declared a state of extreme emergency, closing schools and stores and imposing a curfew.

In Tripoli, the interim government directed all state agencies to deal “immediately” with the damage and floods in eastern cities, but the administration has no sway in the east.

However, Mr al-Dbeibah’s government works closely with the Central Bank of Libya, which disburses funds to government departments across the country.

The UN in Libya said it was following the storm closely and would “provide urgent relief assistance in support of response efforts at local and national levels”.

The US embassy said it had “issued an official declaration of humanitarian need in response to the devastating floods in Libya… We are coordinating with UN partners and Libyan authorities to assess how best to target official US assistance”.

Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, instructed the government to send aid to the affected areas in eastern Libya, Qatar’s state news agency reported. AFP, REUTERS

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