Shipments of international aid began to arrive in Libya on Saturday, offering a lifeline to thousands of people affected by devastating flash floods. But hopes of finding more survivors are dwindling.
Floods last Sunday submerged the port city of Derna, washing thousands of people and homes out to sea. Triggered by a hurricane-strength storm, torrential rains caused two upstream dams to burst and release a surge of water.
Conflicting death tolls have been reported, with estimates ranging from around 3,000 to over 5,000.
The World Health Organization said "the bodies of 3,958 people have been recovered and identified", with 9,000 more still missing, as it announced 29 tonnes of aid had arrived in the eastern city of Benghazi.
"This is a disaster of epic proportions," said Ahmed Zouiten, the WHO's Libya representative. "We are saddened by the unspeakable loss of thousands of souls."
The agency said it had flown in enough emergency aid to reach nearly 250,000 people, including essential medicines, surgery supplies and body bags for the deceased.
Saudi Arabia announced the departure of its first aid flight to Libya and Russia said the third of its aid flights had arrived carrying a mobile hospital.
An Italian naval ship docked in Derna with supplies including tents, blankets, water pumps and tractors, Italy's embassy in Libya said, posting photos of smaller vessels bringing equipment ashore.
'Everything washed away'
Derna resident Mohammad al-Dawali told French news agency AFP: "In this city, every single family has been affected."
The United Nations has launched an appeal for more than $71 million to assist hundreds of thousands in need.
"We don't know the extent of the problem," UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said Friday, as he called for coordination between Libya's two rival administrations – the UN-backed, internationally recognised government in Tripoli, and one based in the disaster-hit east.
A spokesman for the eastern-based Libyan National Army, Ahmed al-Mesmari, said the flood had affected "over 1.2 million people".
"Everything was washed away... the waters have completely cut off the roads in these regions," he said.
The International Organization for Migration, meanwhile, said "over 38,640" people had been left homeless in eastern Libya, 30,000 of them in Derna alone.
Its mission in Libya says that more than 5,000 people are presumed dead.
Civilian access blocked
The head of the eastern-based government, Oussama Hamad, announced new measures would be imposed from Saturday closing the disaster zone off from civilians.
The floods were caused by hurricane-strength Storm Daniel, compounded by the poor infrastructure in Libya, which was plunged into turmoil after an uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
After opening a probe, Libya's prosecutor general Al-Seddik al-Sur said the two dams that burst had been cracked since 1998.
But repairs begun by a Turkish company in 2010 were suspended after a few months when the 2011 revolution flared, and the work never resumed, the prosecutor said.
Climate experts have also linked the disaster to the impacts of a heating planet, with climate change intensifying the rainfall associated with storms over the Mediterranean Sea.