Boris Johnson has said Libyan city Sirte could be the new Dubai, adding, “all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away”.
The foreign secretary’s comments at a Conservative conference fringe meeting have sparked anger, with Labour calling them “crass, callous and cruel”.
The Lib Dems said Theresa May needed to “get her house in order and sack him”.
Mr Johnson was making a point about the need for optimism in Libya, after a recent visit to the country.
- May: Johnson’s not undermining me
- Boris Johnson: Let the British lion roar
“I look at Libya, it’s an incredible country,” he told the meeting.
“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.
The host of the conference fringe event, Legatum Institute chief executive Baroness Stroud, stepped in to say “next question”, as the foreign secretary continued to speak.
The coastal city of Sirte is the former stronghold of so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, and recently the scene of fierce fighting.
Labour’s shadow foreign sectary Emily Johnson 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.”
Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson said: “Diplomacy is a basic requirement for the role of foreign secretary.
“This latest unbelievably crass and insensitive comment about an issue of such importance is further proof Boris is not up to the job.
“May needs to get her house in order and sack him.”
Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt said: “It might be that Boris Johnson is slightly simplistic in his approach to rebuilding countries after war. Slightly.”