After Libya floods, signs point to a crackdown on dissent | ET REALITY


Authorities in flood-ravaged eastern Libya appeared to be moving to silence dissent over the past week, arresting protesters and activists who demanded accountability for what they say was a botched official response to the catastrophe.

Torrential rains that burst two dams caused a flood on September 11 that swept much of the coastal city of Derna and surrounding areas into the Mediterranean Sea, killing thousands of people.

At least three people who publicly criticized the government’s response or participated in a protest in Derna on Monday have been detained, according to witnesses and a family member. Aid workers and journalists also say the authoritarian administration that controls the eastern half of divided Libya, which includes Derna, has restricted access to the city for some.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, internet and cell phone services were also shut down in the city, raising questions about whether they were deliberately cut off by operators.

“The level of anger among the people is very high and communications have been cut off because they are afraid that people will publicly express their anger,” said Islam Azouz, a volunteer aid worker from Derna who attended Monday’s protest, where hundreds of people People demanded that those responsible for the catastrophe be held accountable.

“People lost their homes and their city. Of course they are angry about the corruption and negligence that led to this disaster,” she added.

However, officials in eastern Libya said the internet outages were caused by damage or sabotage.

After Monday’s protest, some reporters from Arabic-language broadcast channels widely seen across the Middle East said they were ordered to leave Derna, while other journalists covering rescue and relief operations said they were prevented from moving freely. through the city or re-enter. once they were gone.

Foreign rescue teams and other aid groups appeared to be operating as usual. But Azouz said on Wednesday that some groups of civilian volunteers on the other side of Libya’s east-west divide had been told to leave.

Two rival governments divided control over the chaos-wracked country in the years after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and the civil war that emerged from it.

A United Nations aid convoy traveling from Benghazi, the de facto capital of eastern Libya, was also turned away Wednesday by authorities in Derna without explanation, said Georgette Gagnon, humanitarian coordinator in Libya for the humanitarian coordination agency. UN aid. However, other UN aid work in Derna continued unhindered, she added.

“There has been no overall effort to restrict UN movements or restrict the entry of humanitarian supplies,” Ms. Gagnon said.

The widespread confusion over access to Derna is largely due to the disorganized, divided and highly politicized state of Libyan institutions and media. It was difficult to obtain reliable information on the number of deaths and other basic data even before the communications interruption.

The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that around 4,000 deaths had been recorded in hospitals. But eastern administration officials have said the death toll is much higher. Some have estimated that up to 11,000 people died and thousands more went missing.

Mohamed Eljarh, a former Libya analyst and consultant who began working Tuesday as an official spokesman for the eastern government’s Benghazi-based emergency response committee, said Wednesday that authorities were trying to streamline chaotic relief efforts as traffic related to aid clogged the streets. roads and crowded what was left of Derna.

But officials in the east still lacked clear protocols for authorizing entry into Derna, he added, saying he did not know why the U.N. convoy had been blocked.

The eastern administration, long controlled by military strongman Khalifa Hifter and his self-styled Libyan National Army, frequently justifies its actions by saying it is rooting out Islamist extremists. This time it’s a little different.

Eljarh said eastern authorities were concerned that anti-Hifter elements were infiltrating the aid effort to incite violence and inflame local grievances against the territory’s leaders, and that Islamist media outlets were politicizing the tragedy by convey unfounded criticism of Mr. Hifter.

But for residents furious at all they had lost in the floods, it appeared that Benghazi-based authorities were reverting to the same repressive security tactics they often use to quell perceived threats to their power.

Hundreds of Derna residents gathered at a mosque in the city on Monday afternoon to protest the government’s response to the storm, calling for an international investigation into those responsible for maintaining the dams that had burst and the ouster of the president. Parliament based in eastern Libya. which is part of the administration of the territory.

They burned the house of the mayor of Derna, nephew of the president appointed by the Benghazi government, and circulated a list of demands. The speaker, Aguila Saleh, is another powerful Eastern politician who generally aligns himself with Hifter.

Shortly after the demonstration, all communications in Derna were cut off, leaving residents, aid workers and others with no way to call, send messages or use mobile internet from early Tuesday morning until Wednesday night, when people said the internet had been restored.

Libya’s state telecommunications company told local media after communications were cut that the outage was caused by damage to fiber optic cables that may have occurred during ongoing recovery operations or by sabotage.

Late Tuesday, the eastern government committee coordinating the emergency response announced that the damage had been 70 percent repaired. This contrasts with repair efforts immediately after the floods, when some communications were restored within just a few hours.

Two telecommunications executives working in Libya who had been briefed on the situation said the Internet was restored after the network was turned on again and that no technical faults had been reported anywhere on the network, meaning there had been intentionally cut.

This would fit the pattern of Benghazi authorities, who have ordered communications cut in another troubled city, Surt, three times in the past four months for security reasons, said the executive, who asked not to be identified for fear of official reprisals. . .

Internal security forces arrested at least two protesters during the demonstration, including one of the organizers, according to Azouz, who was present, and two other protesters who said they witnessed the arrests.

A Derna journalist, Jawhar Ali, said his brother, a Derna resident who had appeared on television to call for those responsible to be held accountable and criticize how aid was handled, had been arrested on Saturday.

The two protesters were later released, but Ali’s brother remained in custody, Ali said.

Although Eljarh, the spokesman, said that “it was very clear that the people of Derna had legitimate concerns and grievances,” he also said that anti-Hifter factions had used the protest to incite violence, including the burning of the mayor’s house. .

In Derna, relief teams and volunteers from across Libya continued to recover bodies from the rubble, attempting to identify them before burying them in mass graves.

Aid groups warned that the disease could spread quickly through contaminated water, with the Libyan National Center for Disease Control already reporting 150 cases of poisoning. Gagnon said several agencies were working with authorities to repair the water supply.

Hwaida Saad contributed reports.

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