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Journalists ordered out of flood-hit Libyan city after protests

Journalists ordered out of flood-hit Libyan city after protests
People who survived the deadly storm that hit Libya, protest against the government outside the Al Sahaba Mosque in Derna, Libya, 18 September 2023. Intense rainfall from the storm in the country's eastern region caused the collapse of two dams south of the city of Derna, sweeping away entire neighborhoods. The death toll has surpassed 11,300 and over 34,000 people have been displaced across the country. The flooding exacerbated Libya's needs, where 800,000 people are reported in need of humanitarian assistance, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said. EPA-EFE/STR

Sept 19 (Reuters) - Journalists were ordered out of the devastated eastern Libyan city of Derna on Tuesday, the morning after demonstrators staged a rally and torched the home of the ousted mayor in fury over the authorities' failure to protect the city from floods.

Arab broadcaster Al Hurra reported that the authorities had asked all journalists to depart as soon as possible. An Al Jazeera correspondent reporting from the city said he had been told to leave.

Hichem Abu Chkiouat, minister of civil aviation in the administration that runs eastern Libya, told Reuters by phone the decision to move journalists was unrelated to the protests there overnight.

“It is an attempt to create better conditions for the rescue teams to carry out the work more smoothly and effectively,” he said. “The large number of journalists has become an impediment to the work of rescue teams.”

He later said that reporters were not being told to leave Derna altogether, only to leave areas where their presence might hinder rescue operations.

Monday’s mass demonstration was the first reported in the city since it was hit by the worst natural disaster in Libya’s history a week earlier. Communications links to the city, which had functioned despite the flood, were shut down on Tuesday morning.

Thousands of people were confirmed killed and thousands more are still missing from the Sept. 10 flood, when dams burst above Derna in a storm, unleashing a torrent of water that swept away the centre of the city.

On Monday demonstrators crowded into the square in front of Derna’s landmark gold-domed Sahaba mosque chanting slogans. Some waved flags from atop the mosque’s roof. Later in the evening, they torched the house of Mayor Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, his office manager told Reuters.

The government administering eastern Libya said Ghaithi had been suspended as mayor and all members of the Derna city council had been dismissed from their posts and referred to investigators.

A week after the disaster, swathes of Derna remain a muddy ruin, roamed by stray dogs, with families still searching for missing 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, blaming insecurity in the area.

Libya has been a failed state for more than a decade, with no government exercising nationwide authority since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011. Derna has been controlled since 2019 by the Libyan National Army which holds sway in the east. For several years before that it was in the hands of militant groups, including local branches of Islamic State and al Qaeda.

The demonstrators denounced the eastern-based parliament speaker Aguila Saleh, who has called the flood a natural catastrophe that could not be avoided.

“Aguila we don’t want you! All Libyans are brothers!” protesters chanted.

Mansour, a student taking part in the protest, said he wanted an urgent investigation into the collapse of the dams, which “made us lose thousands of our beloved people”.

Taha Miftah, 39, said the protest was a message that “the governments have failed to manage the crisis”, and that the parliament was especially to blame.

The full scale of the death toll has yet to emerge, with thousands of people still missing. Officials have given widely varying death tolls. The World Health Organization has confirmed 3,922 deaths.

(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Tom Perry and Peter Graff, Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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