Libyans bury 9 men reportedly slain in NATO strike

Associated Press
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim talks to the media as a group of muslim clerics is displayed on a TV screen, in Tripoli, Libya, Friday, May 13, 2011. Eleven Muslim clerics were killed in their sleep by a NATO airstrike early Friday in the eastern oil town of Brega, Libyan government spokesman said. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
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Angry Libyan mourners have buried nine men who they say were Muslim clerics and medics killed in a NATO airstrike.

NATO says the building struck had been "clearly identified as a command and control center" and it can't confirm or deny civilian casualties.

Mourners fired assault rifles in the air and vowed revenge during Saturday's funerals in Tripoli.

One witness says the men were killed Friday in the eastern town of Brega. He says they were among a group of clerics sent by the government to demonstrate that the oil hub was in the regime's hands.

Government officials have said 11 clerics were killed in their sleep and had been on a peace mission.

The discrepancy in numbers could not immediately be reconciled.

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Melvin contributed from Brussels.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — NATO said Saturday it cannot confirm a Libyan government claim that 11 Muslim clerics were killed in an airstrike in eastern Libya but regrets "any loss of life by innocent civilians" whenever it occurs.

NATO has been intensifying airstrikes against Gadhafi's troops in several areas of Libya in a bid to weaken his brutal crackdown against a rebel uprising. Four explosions — most likely from NATO strikes — were heard in Tripoli early Saturday.

On Friday, the government accused the alliance of killing the 11 clerics as they were sleeping in a guesthouse. Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said those killed were part of a group that had gathered to pray for peace in the oil town of Brega. He said 50 people also were wounded, including five in critical condition.

In a statement Saturday, NATO said the building struck had been "clearly identified as a command and control center." It said it could not confirm civilian deaths but did not deny them either.

The Brussels-based alliance took over command of the air campaign on March 31 with a mandate to protect civilians from government attacks. It repeatedly has said all its targets in Libya are military and that it is not targeting Gadhafi or other individuals.

In a defiant audio recording plays on state TV, the Libyan leader taunted NATO, saying he is alive despite a series of airstrikes and "in a place where you can't get to and kill me."

Gadhafi had appeared on state TV but had not been heard speaking since a NATO attack on his Tripoli compound two weeks ago, which officials said killed one of his sons and three grandchildren. In a brief recording played Friday on Libyan TV, Gadhafi said he wanted to assure Libyans concerned about a strike this week on his compound in Tripoli.

"I tell the coward crusaders — I live in a place where you can't get to and kill me," he said. "I live in the hearts of millions."

He referred to a NATO airstrike on Thursday that targeted his Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli.

Many people "driven by their love for me put in many calls to check on my well-being after they heard of the cowardly missile attack of the crusaders on Bab al-Aziziya last Thursday, May 12," Gadhafi said in the recording, which lasted just over a minute.

Hours later, explosions again thundered across Tripoli.

Another government spokesman, Ibrahim Uthman, said Saturday's strikes targeted the country's Agriculture Ministry. The same building, however, was targeted days ago and, at the time, residents said it was a government intelligence building.

Reporters could not immediately verify the information. They may only leave their hotel in the company of government officials.

The international community also has stepped up efforts to increase pressure on the regime and has been eager to show signs of progress in the bombing campaign, first led by the U.S. and now overseen by NATO.

President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, met Friday at the White House with a senior Libyan opposition delegation. While the U.S. stopped short of recognizing the Libyan Transitional National Council as Libya's legitimate government, which France and Italy already have done, the White House said in a statement after the meeting that the council is a "credible interlocutor of the Libyan people."

Obama did not meet with the opposition leaders, but the White House and NATO promised to continue military operations in Libya as long as Gadhafi keeps attacking his people.

The White House also said it was looking for ways to increase U.S. financial support to the opposition, in part through congressional legislation that would free up a portion of the more than $30 billion in frozen Gadhafi regime assets in U.S. banks so it could be used to aid the rebels.

The rebels have said they need up to $3 billion in coming months for military salaries, food, medicine and other supplies. They also say no country has sent the arms they desperately need.

Libyan opposition representative Mahmoud Jibril also planned to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy later Saturday in Paris.

A local activist also said Saturday that he witnessed some 50-60 residents attacking military trucks late Friday in the western neighborhood of Abu Sitta. He said the events took place in the late evening on Friday. The physican-turned-activist said the residents burnt down a military truck.

"Everybody escaped after some cheering," the activist said. His statements could not be independently confirmed.

The rebels control most of eastern Libya, while Gadhafi controls most of the west, including Tripoli. Misrata — about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli — is the only rebel stronghold in the west.

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Melvin reported from Brussels. Associated Press writer Julie Pace also contributed to this report.

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