British Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson’s comments on Libya’ Sirte at a Conservative fringe meeting sparked anger, with a number of Tory MPs calling for his sacking and Labour labeling him “crass and cruel”.

Johnson reportedly told the meeting, “I look at Libya, it’s an incredible country. Bone-white sands, beautiful sea, Caesar’s Palace, obviously, you know, the real one.”

“Incredible place. It’s got a real potential and brilliant young people who want to do all sorts of tech. There’s a group of UK business people, actually, some wonderful guys who want to invest in Sirte on the coast, near where Gaddafi was captured and executed as some of you may have seen.”

“They have got a brilliant vision to turn Sirte into the next Dubai. The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away,” he said, before laughing.

Read: Britain’s Foreign Secretary says removal of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi a tragedy

The coastal city of Sirte is the former stronghold of so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, and recently the scene of fierce fighting. Hundreds of Libyans have died in the battle to liberate Sirte and are widely regarded as martyrs. World leaders and the media are increasingly using the term ‘Daesh’ in place of the more commonly used ‘ISIS’, ‘ISIL’ or ‘IS’. Daesh is an acronym for the Arabic phrase al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

True to form: Boris Johnson called Africa “that country” in a speech and suggested it could benefit from adopting “British values”. (Photo: Financial Times via https://www.flickr.com/photos/financialtimes/)

In late 2014, members of the extremist armed group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, began filtering into Sirte, a Mediterranean port city on the northern coast of Libya. By August 2015, the group had turned Sirte into its largest stronghold outside of Iraq and Syria. Daesh has since been eliminated from its Libyan stronghold, but left destruction and a power struggle in its wake.

Following the criticism, Johnson defended his remarks on the struggling city. Johnson said on Twitter that he had been making a point about the need for optimism in Libya, after a recent visit to the country. “The reality there is that the clearing of corpses of Daesh fighters has been made much more difficult by IEDs and booby traps,” he tweeted. “That’s why Britain is playing a key role in reconstruction and why I have visited Libya twice this year in support.”

Reactions

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said: “It is less than a year since Sirte was finally captured from Daesh by the Libyan Government of National Accord, a battle in which hundreds of government soldiers were killed and thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire, the second time in five years that the city had seen massive loss of life as a result of the Libyan civil war.

“For Boris Johnson to treat those deaths as a joke – a mere inconvenience before UK business people can turn the city into a beach resort – is unbelievably crass, callous and cruel.

“If these words came from the business people themselves, it would be considered offensive enough, but for them to come from the foreign secretary is simply a disgrace.

“There comes a time when the buffoonery needs to stop, because if Boris Johnson thinks the bodies of those brave government soldiers and innocent civilians killed in Sirte are a suitable subject for throwaway humor, he does not belong in the office of foreign secretary.”

Read: Obama admits Libya “worst mistake” of his tenure. Could the AU’s negotiated transition roadmap have been a better option?

The House of Representatives committee, in a statement posted on its website, said it deplored Johnson’s “irresponsible” remarks and called on the prime minister to clarify and apologize. It said his plans to turn Sirte into something resembling Dubai was a violation of national sovereignty.

Clearing the remnants of fighting in Sirte Libya by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Photo Credit Flickr

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston called on Johnson to apologize and urged him to “consider his position”, adding that the comments were “crass, poorly judged and grossly insensitive – and this from the person who is representing us on the world stage. I think they were really disappointing.”

In one of the more scholarly British condemnations of Johnson, the former British ambassador to Libya Sir Oliver Miles tweeted: “Boris has forgotten his Greek. Antigone’s respect for the dead in defiance of King Kreon is a classic statement of morality against tyranny.”

The Tobruk-based Libyan parliament’s foreign affairs and international cooperation committee have condemned the remarks, meaning that both sides in the dispute in Libya have expressed their displeasure.

There is no suggestion yet that the anger within Libya over Johnson’s remarks will damage anything as serious as security cooperation, but there is political backlash that might reduce UK influence just as talks over the political future in Libya reach a critical stage.

Currently there is competition between European governments over the future political makeup of a revamped Libyan government, especially the likely role of Gen Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the so-called Libyan National Army.