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Rescue workers were burying thousands of victims of devastating floods in eastern Libya in mass graves as they struggled to cope with the scale of the disaster that has claimed at least 5,500 lives.
Libyans officials expect the death toll to continue rising as they battle to recover bodies in the coastal city of Derna, where the collapse of two dams exacerbated floods triggered by a storm that struck the eastern Mediterranean region.
“They [the victims] are being buried in three mass graves. There’s no time or space to bury them in single graves,” said Osama Ali, a spokesman for the Ambulance and Emergency Center in Libya. “We removed 500 bodies in a single operation.”
Ali said the confirmed death toll had risen to 5,500 and could increase, adding that a 10km-squared area of Derna was “completely destroyed” by the floods.
The city of 100,000 people was worst hit because of the collapse of the dams after Storm Daniel hit the north African country over the weekend, bringing with it torrential rains and strong winds.
Yann Fridez, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Libya delegation, said a seven-metre high wave wiped out buildings across Derna and washed infrastructure into the sea.
“Family members are missing, dead bodies are washing back up on shore and homes are destroyed,” he said. “The city faces immense emotional trauma.”
The destruction of the dams has put a spotlight on the dysfunctionality of the Libya state in the years since dictator Muammer Gaddafi was toppled in 2011 after a popular uprising that morphed into a civil war.
For the past decade, the nation has been blighted by chaos and conflict, with rival administrations in the east and west. Infrastructure has been left in a state of decay and government services are dire.
A report published last year in a journal of Libya’s Sebha University had warned about poor maintenance of the city’s dam.
“The results that were obtained demonstrate that the studied area is at risk of flooding,” the report said. “Therefore, immediate measures must be taken for routine maintenance of the dams, because in the event of a big flood, the consequences will be disastrous for the residents of the valley and the city.”
The report added that residents were living in homes along the valley and that “the matter requires raising awareness among citizens of the dangers of flooding and to undertake all necessary measures for their safety”.
Videos and images posted on social media showed huge destruction in Derna, with buildings reduced to rubble and vehicles overturned. Corpses in plastic body bags were lined up on the ground.
The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said on Tuesday that 10,000 people were thought to be missing. Derna’s mayor told Arabiya TV on Wednesday that the death toll could reach as high as 20,000.
The International Organization for Migration said this week that 30,000 people had been forced from their homes in Derna, and several thousand others had been displaced in other cities.
Rescue workers have struggled to reach parts of Derna because main roads were washed away and turned into rivers. Electricity and communications within the city have also been cut.
Othman Abduljaleel, health minister in the eastern Libyan administration, said more than 3,000 victims had been buried by Thursday morning, with a further 2,000 being processed, according to the Associated Press.
Egypt and Turkey have sent rescue teams to help with the recovery, while the US, the UK, the UN and others have provided emergency assistance.