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HomeworldDeath toll in Libya’s Derna may double from 5,300: Minister

Death toll in Libya’s Derna may double from 5,300: Minister

DERNA – Bodies were washing ashore in eastern Libya on Wednesday, increasing the death toll from a storm that swept whole neighbourhoods out to sea. Thousands have been confirmed dead and many thousands more are still missing.

The flood torrent, unleashed by a powerful storm on Sunday night that burst dams, obliterated around a quarter of the Mediterranean city of Derna. Whole multi-storey buildings were swept away with sleeping families inside.

“The sea is constantly dumping dozens of bodies,” Mr Hichem Abu Chkiouat, minister of civil aviation in the administration that runs eastern Libya, said by phone.

“We have counted more than 5,300 dead so far, and the number is likely to increase significantly and may even double because the number of missing people is also in the thousands,” he added.

Tens of thousands of people have been made homeless, he said, appealing for international aid and adding that Libya did not have the experience to deal with the aftermath of such a disaster.

Officials say at least 10,000 people are feared missing or dead, though the number of confirmed dead so far varies. Mr Tariq Kharaz, a spokesman for the eastern authorities, said 3,200 bodies had been recovered, and 1,100 of them are yet to be identified.

The United Nations migration agency, the International Organisation for Migration, said at least 30,000 people had been displaced in Derna.

The devastation was clear from high points above Derna, where the densely populated city centre, built along a seasonal riverbed, was now a wide, flat crescent of muddy water, gleaming in the sun, all its buildings swept away.

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Journalists saw many bodies laid out on the ground in hospital corridors.

“Bodies are lying everywhere – in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings,” Mr Chkiouat said.

“I am not exaggerating when I say that 25 per cent of the city has disappeared. Many, many buildings have collapsed.”

Other eastern cities, including Libya’s second-biggest city of Benghazi, were also hit by the storm. Mr Tamer Ramadan, head of a delegation of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said the death toll would be “huge”.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said emergency response teams had been mobilised to help on the ground.

Governments including those of Qatar and Turkey have rushed aid to Libya. The United Arab Emirates has sent two aid planes carrying 150 tonnes of urgent food, relief and medical supplies to eastern Libya, the UAE’s state news agency Wam reported.

‘Never felt as frightened’

In Derna, Mr Mostafa Salem, 39, said he lost 30 of his relatives. “Most people were sleeping. Nobody was ready,” he told Reuters.

Mr Raja Sassi, 39, survived the flood with his wife and small daughter after water reached an upper floor, but said the rest of his family had died.

“At first, we just thought it was heavy rain, but at midnight we heard a huge explosion and it was the dam bursting,” he said.

At Tripoli airport in north-west Libya, a woman wailed as she received a call saying most of her family were dead or missing. Her brother-in-law, Mr Walid Abdulati, said: “We are not speaking about one or two people dead, but up to 10 members of each family dead.”

A passenger on a plane from Tripoli to the east said: “I have never felt as frightened as I do now… I lost contact with all my family, friends and neighbours.”

An interior ministry spokesman told Al Jazeera that naval teams were searching for the “many families that were swept into the sea in the city of Derna”.

Flood warning

Derna is bisected by a seasonal river that flows from highlands to the south, and normally protected from flooding by dams.

A video posted on social media showed remnants of a collapsed dam 11.5km upstream of the city where two river valleys converged, now surrounded by huge pools of mud-coloured water.

“There used to be a dam,” a voice can be heard saying in the video. Reuters confirmed the location based on the images.

In a research paper published in 2022, hydrologist Abdelwanees A.R. Ashoor of Libya’s Omar Al-Mukhtar University said repeated flooding of the seasonal riverbed, or wadi, was a threat to Derna. He cited five floods since 1942, and called for immediate steps to ensure regular maintenance of the dams.

“If a huge flood happens, the result will be catastrophic for the people of the wadi and the city,” the paper said.

Pope Francis was among world leaders who said they were deeply saddened by the deaths and destruction in Libya. United States President Joe Biden sent his condolences and said Washington was sending emergency funds to relief organisations.

Libya is politically split between east and west and public services have fallen apart since a 2011 Nato-backed uprising that prompted years of factional conflict.

The internationally recognised government in Tripoli does not control eastern areas but has dispatched aid to Derna, with at least one relief flight leaving from the western city of Misrata on Tuesday, a journalist on the plane said. REUTERS

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