TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Tears, chants and volleys of gunfire fired into the air punctuated the funeral for nine imams Libya said NATO killed in an air strike, but the alliance said the building it struck was a command-and-control centre.
NATO is bombing Libya as part of a U.N. mandate to protect civilians. Some NATO members say they will continue until Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who taunted the alliance as cowards whose bombs could not kill him, is forced out.
The nine imams were among 11 people killed in a strike on a guest house in the eastern city of Brega on Friday, the government said. The other two were buried elsewhere.
“May God defeat their (NATO) forces on land, sea and air,” shouted a crowd of about 500 at the funeral held at a cemetery near Tripoli’s port.
Mourners hoisted the plain wooden coffins above their heads to carry them into the cemetery and they were open to show what looked like bodies wrapped in green shrouds and garlanded with flowers, a Reuters witness said.
“It (NATO’s campaign) is one insult after another to the living and the dead,” said onlooker Abdulrahman.
In a statement, NATO defended its action: “We are aware of allegations of civilian casualties in connection to this strike and although we cannot independently confirm the validity of the claim, we regret any loss of life by innocent civilians when they occur.”
Libyan state television broadcast audio remarks by Gaddafi on Friday apparently aimed at quashing speculation about his health sparked by Italy’s foreign minister who said he had likely been wounded in a NATO strike and left Tripoli.
“I tell the cowardly crusader (NATO) that I live in a place they cannot reach and where you cannot kill me,” said the man on the audio tape, whose voice sounded like Gaddafi’s.
“Even if you kill the body you will not be able to kill the soul that lives in the hearts of millions,” he said.
NATO struck his Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli on Thursday but government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said he was unharmed, in good spirits and in Tripoli.
Rebels have mounted a three-month-old uprising against Gaddafi’s rule and control Benghazi and the oil-producing east of Libya. Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting.
Rebels have failed to achieve their main military target of toppling Gaddafi and taking Tripoli and the war has reached a virtual stalemate, with recent fighting centred on the port city of Misrata in the west and in the Western Mountains region.
Rebels seized Misrata airport this week in a significant breakthrough.
They now also control al Dafiniya, the western entrance to Misrata, and Tammina, about 25 km (16 miles) east, said a witness called Ghassan by telephone on Saturday, quoting rebels.
A doctor at Misrata hospital, Khalid Abufalgha, said by telephone: “The city is coming back to life. People are going out. Not everything is available but to some extent people are finding what they need in terms of food essentials.”
One rebel was killed on Saturday in fighting and 20 others lightly wounded, he said. There was no independent confirmation.
Another Misrata source said rebels were fighting through the day on the outskirts of the town of Zlitan, some 60 Km (35 miles) to the west.
Libya’s border with Tunisia near Dehiba is another focus of fighting since it provides a conduit for rebel supplies to the Western Mountains.
On Saturday, Tunisia turned back a column of around 200 pro-Gaddafi soldiers in 50 vehicles at the Gare Ayoub crossing, said the Tunisian news agency, TAP, adding there was no violence. The Libyans were apparently trying to attack a rebel-held frontier post near the Tunisian town of Dehiba.
Rebel leaders met senior officials at the White House on Friday in a boost to their bid for international legitimacy.
At a news conference in Benghazi on Saturday, rebels said they were pleased with the international support they had received and rejected partition as a solution for the country.
“There is no stalemate. We are making progress on all fronts .... We don’t see progress as only military progress because this revolution was a peaceful humanitarian revolution that was simply calling for simple human rights,” said Aref Nayed, support coordinator for the council.
In a fresh sign of diplomatic activity, Greece will send officials to Benghazi to work as a contact group with rebels, Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said on Saturday after talks in Athens with the U.N. envoy for Libya Abdelilah al-Khatib.
A small team will travel to Libya next week with a humanitarian aid ship, a foreign ministry official said.
Reporting by Souhil Karam in Rabat, Sami Aboudi in Cairo, Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Mohammed Abbas in Benghazi, Tarek Amara in Tunisia and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; writing by Matthew Bigg; editing by Andrew Roche