Libya: Eight officials arrested as search continues for missing dead in city devastated by flood

Rescuers and relatives sit in front of collapsed buildings after recent flooding caused by Mediterranean storm Daniel, in Derna (AP)
Rescuers and relatives sit in front of collapsed buildings after recent flooding caused by Mediterranean storm Daniel, in Derna (AP)

Eight Libyan officials have been detained as part of an investigation into the collapse of two dams that killed as many as 11,000 people.

Two dams outside of Derna collapsed during Storm Daniel, sending a tidal wave of water which destroyed a quarter of the Mediterranean city on 11 September.

Government officials and aid agencies estimate between 4,000 to as many as 11,000 were killed in the flooding. The true death toll is not known as the bodies of many of the people killed remain under rubble or in the Mediterranean, according to search teams.

A statement by the office of General Prosecutor al-Sidiq al-Sour said prosecutors on Sunday questioned seven former and current officials with the Water Resources Authority and the Dams Management Authority over allegations that mismanagement, negligence and mistakes contributed to the disaster.

A view of the destruction after flooding in Derna (AP)
A view of the destruction after flooding in Derna (AP)

Derna Mayor Abdel-Moneim al-Ghaithi, who was sacked after the disaster, was also questioned, the statement said.

The eight former and current officials did not provide evidence to spare them from potential charges so prosecutors ordered them jailed pending the end of the investigation, the statement added.

It follows protests in Derna by local residents who have criticised the way the authorities handled the storm, which also hit Greece. In particular many have hit out at the evacuation orders to leave the beach area and move towards the centre of the city, which put several families directly in the path of the waters from the dam.

Inside the destroyed city, residents, some of whom had lost dozens of relatives, said the situation had improved but was still dire. Local and international teams were still digging through the mud and destroyed buildings looking for missing victims.

“At ground zero there is still no water, no electricity, and they found 75 bodies yesterday that had been swept east into some cliffs,” Hamdi Burwag, who lost 32 relatives in the storm, said.

So far only the bodies of five of his missing relatives have been found and buried, he told The Independent.

“I keep telling my family we likely will not find the others. Only God knows,” he added.

I keep telling my family we likely will not find the others

Hamdi Burwag, who lost 32 relatives in Storm Daniel

Residents hope the arrests mark the first crucial step in the investigation which may face difficulties because Libya is torn between rival governments in the east and west of the country.

The oil-rich North African nation has been ripped apart by rival fiefdoms of militias since 2011, when an Arab Spring uprising, backed by NATO, ousted and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed. Since then rival administrations have claimed control, backed by armed groups and foreign support.

Now the country is roughly divided in two: the country’s east has been under the control of General Khalifa Hafter and his self-styled Libyan National Army, which is allied with a parliament-confirmed government. A rival administration is based in the capital, Tripoli, and enjoys the support of most of the international community.

The dams were built by a Yugoslav construction company in the 1970s above Wadi Derna, a river valley which divides the city and were meant to protect the area from flash floods.

However, a report by a state-run audit agency in 2021 said the two dams had not been maintained despite the allocation of more than $2m for that purpose in 2012 and 2013.

This is also despite the fact that a Turkish firm was contracted in 2007 to carry out maintenance on the two dams and to build a third one in between them. The firm, Arsel Construction Company Ltd., said on its website that it completed its work in November 2012. It didn’t respond to an email seeking further comment.

The World Health Organisation says more than 4,000 flood-related deaths have been registered but the head of Libya’s Red Crescent previously cited a death of toll of 11,300.

OCHA says at least 9,000 people remain missing.

The dead in eastern Libya include foreigners living in the North African countries.