TRIPOLI: Libyans prepared Saturday to bury 11 imams killed in what Moamer Qaddafi’s regime said was a NATO air strike while the Western coalition expressed regret at any loss of civilian lives.
Funerals for the 11 imams reportedly killed when they gathered early Friday in the eastern city of Brega were to be held later on Saturday, officials said.
At least 50 other people were wounded in the NATO aerial attack, with five of them in critical condition, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told a news conference on Friday in Tripoli.
A NATO statement said a “command and control bunker was struck in Brega early this (Friday) morning, as the structure was being used by the Qaddafi regime to coordinate strikes against the Libyan civilian population.”
“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.”
Imams present at Friday’s news conference in the Libyan capital called for revenge.
They urged Muslims across the world to kill “1,000 people for each dead imam” across the world, namely in “France, Italy, Denmark, Britain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”
Qaddafi insisted meanwhile that he was beyond the reach of NATO bombs after Italian claims he was wounded and on the run.
“I want to say to the Crusader cowards that I live in a place where I cannot be reached or killed; I live in the hearts of millions,” Qaddafi said in an audio message aired Friday on state television.
A series of six loud explosions rocked Tripoli late Friday and early Saturday as jets flew overhead. Smoke could be seen rising from one of the sites in eastern Tripoli, witnesses said.
In Washington, the Libyan rebel movement’s number two, Mahmud Jibril, was received at the White House by President Barack Obama’s national security adviser.
The White House said the rebels’ National Transitional Council was a “legitimate and credible” voice of the Libyan people. But it stopped short of offering the full diplomatic recognition that Jibril was seeking.
Questions about Qaddafi’s fate arose Friday when Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the Libyan strongman was “probably outside of Tripoli and probably also injured.”
He said the reports that Qaddafi was on the run were credible because they came from the Roman Catholic bishop of Tripoli. But the bishop, Giovanni Martinelli, denied having made any such comment.
“What the foreign minister said is not right because I never said that the Libyan leader was wounded,” Martinelli told Radio France Internationale.
“I only said that he was under psychological shock from the death of his son. I did not say he was wounded or that he left Tripoli.”
Government spokesman Ibrahim told reporters Qaddafi “is in very good health, high morale, high spirits,” and “he is in Tripoli.”
Qaddafi’s audio message appeared to have been made after a NATO strike on his Bab al-Aziziya compound early Thursday, because he referred to “the martyrdom of three civilians, journalists.”
On the battlefield, rebels reportedly made new progress in their advance towards the eastern and western boundaries of the western port city of Misrata.
An AFP correspondent said they had moved 20 kilometres in the east to reach the gates of Tavarga and in the west they reached the gates of the city of Zliten, their next main military target on the road to Tripoli.
The rebel leadership also advanced on the diplomatic front.
US national security adviser Tom Donilon told the rebels’ Jibril “that the United States views the (National Transitional Council) as a legitimate and credible interlocutor of the Libyan people,” the White House said.
Officials did not say whether Obama dropped by the meeting.
The Libyan opposition wants Washington to recognise the body as “the sole” legitimate interlocutor of the Libyan people.
Unlike France, Gambia, Italy and Qatar, the United States has not fully recognised the NTC. And White House spokesman Jay Carney said such a step was “premature.”
There was no immediate sign of new US financial help for the cash-strapped rebels. But the White House said it was working with Congress on changes to the law to allow a portion of around $30 billion in Qaddafi regime assets blocked in the United States to be funnelled towards the opposition.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet Jibril in Paris on Saturday, the French presidency said.
Meanwhile rebel chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil was holding Saturday what the insurgents billed as a “town hall” meeting in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi with leaders from western Libyan cities that remain under Qaddafi’s control.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also was at the White House Friday for closed-door discussions with Obama.
Rasmussen said NATO was fulfilling its UN-mandated mission in Libya, had saved “numerous lives” and had stopped the Qaddafi regime’s bid to retake the country by force after widespread uprisings.
In The Hague, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he would seek arrest warrants for three people considered most responsible for crimes against humanity in Libya. Diplomats expect Qaddafi to be among them.
In Geneva, the UN refugee agency said it feared up to 1,200 people fleeing Libya had died in the Mediterranean Sea so far and that it had found evidence that a military vessel refused to rescue one boat.