UK prime minister Theresa May has faced calls from her own MPs to sack her foreign secretary Boris Johnson after he joked that the war-devastated Libyan city of Sirte (pictured) could be the "next Dubai" if only they could "clear the dead bodies away".
Johnson, who has defended his remarks, told a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester last night night that a group of British investors had a "brilliant vision" to turn the coastal city where Muammar Gaddafi was killed into a business and tourism hub.
After months of fierce fighting the city was liberated from the Islamic State group, also known as Daesh, in December last year. Libya’s UN-backed unity government confirmed today that there were bodies of militants still trapped under rubble in Sirte.
"I look at Libya, it’s an incredible country," Johnson said. "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."
He went on to say: "There’s a group of UK business people, wonderful guys who want to invest in Sirte, on the coast, near where Gaddafi was actually captured and executed as some of you may have seen.
"And they literally have a brilliant vision to turn Sirte, with the help of the municipality of Sirte, to turn it into the next Dubai."
Johnson then drew laughs and gasps from the audience when he said: "The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then they’ll be there."
Conservative MP Heidi Allen was the first among her’s and Johnson’s party to call for him to be sacked.
She tweeted late yesterday that it was "100% unacceptable from anyone, let alone the foreign sec.", adding: "Boris must be sacked for this. He does not represent my party."
Her Conservative colleague Sarah Wollaston MP joined in the criticism, saying: "Demeaning jokes about real people murdered in Libya would be crass even from a stand-up; appalled to hear this from our foreign secretary."
However, Johnson took to Twitter late last night to defend himself. "Shame people with no knowledge or understanding of Libya want to play politics with the appallingly dangerous reality in Sirte," he tweeted.
"The reality there is that the clearing of corpses of Daesh fighters has been made much more difficult by IEDs and booby traps. That’s why Britain is playing a key role in reconstruction and why I have visited Libya twice this year in support."
Libya’s UN-backed unity government today confirmed to newspaper The Times that there were bodies of Islamic State militants still trapped in Sirte.
"We estimate between 50 and 150 bodies are still trapped under the rubble in the wreckage of buildings that have been hit by airstrikes. We believe them to be the bodies of Isis and their relatives who stayed to support them, though we offered safe corridors for people to leave," a government spokesman said, reports The Times.
"We cannot clear the bodies because we lack the resources like bulldozers and tractors and because Isis rigged a lot of these areas with IEDs. We fear the remaining bodies will spread disease."
The Times also reports that a Libyan govermment spokesman said that the authorities had not heard of the British businessmen who intended to invest in Sirte and that Johnson had not discussed the matter during his two trips to Libya this year.
Today Damian Green, the prime minister’s first secretary of state, defended the foreign secretary on Sky News but said he needed to choose his words more carefully.
"I think we all need to be very careful in our choice of language and Boris explained in a series of tweets afterwards the complexity of the situation in Libya, that the bodies he was referring to are often Daesh fighters who have been booby-trapped," he said.
"We should all be careful in our language in relation to sensitive and difficult situations like Libya… including Boris."
Emily Thornberry, the Labour Party shadow foreign secretary, 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 humour, he does not belong in the office of foreign secretary."
A video of Boris Johnson making the remarks can be seen here.
Photograph: The coastal city of Sirte, Libya was liberated from the Islamic State group in December 2016 (European Commission)