Boris Johnson 'dishonours memory' of fallen anti-IS fighters: Libyan politicians

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Britain's top diplomat, who said city could be turned into the next Dubai if they could clear the bodies, backs strongman Khalifa Haftar

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has offended some allies with his flippant remarks (AFP)
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Wednesday 4 October 2017 14:54 UTC
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Libyan politicians have accused Boris Johnson of dishonouring the memory of anti-Islamic State fighters after he said the Libyan city of Sirte could be the new Dubai, adding, "all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away".

The British foreign secretary's comments at a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting on Tuesday have sparked anger in Libya, with senior Libya politicians saying that Britain’s top diplomat “dishonoured the memory of young Libyans who died fighting against Islamic State”.

"They've got a brilliant vision to turn Sirte, with the help of the municipality of Sirte, to turn it into the next Dubai," Johnson said. "The only thing they've got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then we will be there."

Some activists from Prime Minister Theresa May's party laughed at the joke, however Guma El-Gamaty, head of the Libyan Taghyeer Party and a member of the Libya Political Dialogue group, said Johnson's "insensitive comments" had "dishonoured the sacrifice" of up to 750 Libyan men who died fighting against Islamic State militants in Sirte.

'"It is insensitive to talk about those bodies as if they are some sort of obstacle to Sirte becoming a destination for British businessmen to enjoy their beer and sunbathing'

- Guma El-Gamaty, Libyan politician 

In an interview with Middle East Eye, he said: “Libyans fought and died fighting Islamic State in Sirte, and thousands more were injured. Many remain where they fell because of the nature of the fighting and the number of collapsed buildings and tunnels.

"It is insensitive to talk about those bodies as if they are some sort of obstacle to Sirte becoming a destination for British businessmen to enjoy their beer and sunbathing.”

Gamaty said it was up to British Prime Minister Theresa May to decide on Johnson's future in government, but said: "The very least he should do is apologise to the families of the young men who died. He should retract those comments".

"He obviously lacks a deep and real understanding of Libya," he added.

Johnson has also been accused of naivety for suggesting that British firms are eager to invest in Sirte, where violence is still common and few public services are operational.

Oliver Miles, the UK’s former ambassador to Libya and deputy chairman of the Libyan British Business Council told MEE that the gaffe was another example of Johnson’s “inability to keep his mouth shut”.

He said: “We have already seen reaction in Libya suggesting that these dead bodies are people who had fought Islamic State and they deserve to be honoured.

“And it’s exaggerated to say there are lots and lots of companies ready to pour into Libya. It was a silly thing to say. Loose lips in diplomacy don’t pay. We are some way from major UK firms investing in Libya."



Body bags in Sirte hold the remains of people pulled from the rubble by the Libyan Red Crescent in December 2016 (AFP)

Libyan politician and member of the House of Representatives Salah Suhbi told the Libya Herald that "It is cruel and unacceptable that the head of British diplomacy speaks and behaves in such a manner."

‘‘Is this a reflection of the British government’s current views on Libya? Because this is not the UK that I know," Suhbi, who previously worked at the British Council in Tripoli, added. 

Britain and France took a leading role in the attacks that helped rebels overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country has since descended into chaos, with thousands of casualties.

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Johnson recently made a two-day visit to Libya. Afterwards he backed Khalifa Haftar whose Libyan National Army has been fighting against "umpteen militias" and is responsible for a large number of those casualties. 

The Islamic State (IS) group took over Sirte in early 2015, turning it into their most important base outside the Middle East and attracting large numbers of foreign fighters into the city. It was later cleared of the militants.

Labour's shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, called Johnson's comments "shameful" and "unbelievably crass, callous and cruel".

Conservative lawmakers also criticised Johnson. MP Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrats foreign affairs chief, said Johnson lacked the diplomatic skills necessary for his role and called on May to fire him.

'It is cruel and unacceptable that the head of British diplomacy speaks and behaves in such a manner'

- Salah Suhbi, Libyan politician

Johnson later turned to Twitter to defend his comments with a series of tweets, accusing people "with no knowledge or understanding of Libya" of wanting to "play politics with the appallingly dangerous reality in Sirte".

"That's why Britain is playing a key role in reconstruction and why I have visited Libya twice this year in support," he said in a series of tweets.

Earlier this year, Britain's ambassador to Myanmar was forced to interrupt Johnson as he tried to recite a nostalgic colonial poem by Rudyard Kipling in public during a visit to the country's most famous Buddhist site.