TRIPOLI, Libya — Mourners vowed revenge and rattled off heavy gunfire in a Tripoli cemetery on Saturday as they buried nine men they said were Muslim clerics and medics killed in a NATO airstrike in mostly rebel-held eastern Libya.
The Libyan government gave one account of why the men had traveled from the capital to the eastern front; a cleric at the funeral who said he witnessed the attack in the oil town of Brega gave a different version.
And the government, apparently hoping to turn the funeral into an outpouring of support for Moammar Gadhafi, announced the time and place on state TV and over text messages. Only a few hundred men showed up, however, and few appeared to be family or friends of the dead. At least a dozen were soldiers.
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. Libya's government has been eager to counter NATO's message that its mission's central aim is to protect civilians.
The sound of another apparent NATO airstrike was heard in Tripoli on Saturday night. Libyan state TV said it targeted a site at the Bab al-Aziziya military base that includes Gadhafi's residence.
A NATO official in Naples said warplanes targeted a military command and control site and that she was "aware of reports" of civilian deaths in the Brega attack, but "we cannot independently verify that."
Meanwhile, in Athens, the U.N. special envoy to Libya said he was planning to travel to Tripoli on Sunday aboard a Greek air force plane on his seventh trip to the North African country in an effort to end hostilities and work out a political solution to the crisis. The envoy, Abdelilah Al-Khatib, a former Jordanian foreign minister, met Saturday with Greece's Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas and Prime Minister George Papandreou.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said the men killed early Friday were clerics who met in the port town of Brega, which has been fought over throughout the three-month conflict, to pray for peace. Ibrahim said dozens of clerics hoped to head to the rebel-held eastern part of Libya to seek an end to the war. He and other government spokespeople said 11 were killed. He said 50 people also were wounded, including five in critical condition.
A cleric who identified himself as a witness gave a different account and said only nine were killed. He said they were a group of 16 men sent by the country's Islamic affairs department to Brega to demonstrate that the port city was firmly in the hands of Gadhafi's forces as an act of defiance.
"We wanted to show that Brega wasn't in rebel hands," the cleric said. "We wanted to prove it by praying in the mosque on Friday. But we didn't make it — my friends were killed in the strike," he said at the funeral in Tripoli's main Shat al-Hanshir cemetery.
The cleric said three strikes hit their guest house and formed a crater he estimated to be 16 feet deep and 50 feet wide (5 meters deep and 15 meters wide).
"It leveled the area," he said. "We identified our friends from their clothing," said the cleric, who showed little emotion as he spoke.
He listed the names of seven fellow clerics he said were killed, including a leading cleric named Sheik Omar Ibrahim. The two other dead might have been medics responding to the first strike, he said.
The witness gave his name, but The Associated Press is not publishing it out of concern for his safety if he were identified. He did not appear to be aware that his version of events differed from what government officials told reporters.
Government spokespeople were not immediately available later Saturday to explain the discrepancies.
In a statement Saturday, NATO said the building struck in Brega had been "clearly identified as a command and control center." It said it could not confirm civilian deaths.
The NATO official in Naples, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to journalists, described it as a bunker.
The Brussels-based alliance took over command of the air campaign from the U.S. 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.
Gadhafi's regime has appeared in some cases to gather civilians — or at least not stop them from gathering — at military sites that are potential NATO targets. The Gadhafi family compound in Tripoli, located on the sprawling Bab al-Aziziya military base, is consistently packed with civilians who camp out in the area and often sing and dance around a fairground-style area.
Government officials have said on previous occasions that the Libyan civilians insist on sleeping in the compound to defend their leader. But the Bab al-Aziziya compound is heavily fortified and guarded by layers of patrolling soldiers who could prevent them from entering.
The crowds at Saturday's funeral in a cemetery along the Mediterranean chanted slogans against NATO and the foreign media. Men ripped gunfire from assault rifles above mourners' heads as the coffins were taken into a nearby burial ground, bullet casings spitting onto the sandy ground. Only two of the men were seen weeping, suggesting few close friends or relatives were among them.
As one cleric sobbed and spoke to the men — one of the few who displayed any grief — a white contrail from what appeared to be a NATO aircraft left a semicircle across the sky. Enraged, the crowd shouted "God is great!" and shook their fists at the sky.
In a defiant audio recording played on state TV Friday, 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."
Also Saturday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Libya's opposition leader amid questions about the death of a French military contractor in a Libyan rebel stronghold.
Mahmoud Jibril, top representative of the Libyan Transitional National Council, did not speak to reporters on his way out of the meeting with Sarkozy in Paris. A day earlier, Jibril met with U.S. officials in Washington.Comment on this story
France has been a major backer of the rebels, and France has played a leading role in the NATO campaign.
The director of a French military contracting company was killed this week in rebel-controlled Benghazi, hours before he was supposed to meet with Jibril's transitional government.
The rebels control most of eastern Libya, while Gadhafi controls most of the west, including Tripoli.
Melvin reported from Brussels. Associated Press writer Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.