TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyans buried nine bodies Saturday in a dusty cemetery along Tripoli’s Mediterranean shore, in a ceremony that raised as many questions as it answered.
The Libyan government said the men were Muslim religious leaders killed early Friday morning in a NATO airstrike in a guesthouse in the eastern Libyan town of Brega. If true, that would represent the largest loss of civilian lives in a NATO strike since the allied operation began.
NATO, however, said in a statement Saturday that it had struck a command-and-control bunker in Brega that was being used to coordinate strikes against civilians, adding that it regrets civilian deaths whenever they occur. It said it had not been able to confirm the validity of the government’s claim.
NATO has stepped up its attacks in Libya in recent days, part of an apparently coordinated effort with rebel forces to end Moammar Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
Accounts at the funeral, which drew about 500 people, suggested that not everything the government said was accurate. At least one of the dead was an oil field engineer, not a religious leader, according to a family member.
The government had also said that the group was a peace delegation en route to the rebels’ de facto capital of Benghazi and that 11 imams had been killed. But a Koran teacher who said he was part of the group said it was not a peace delegation. Instead, he said, its members had traveled to Brega, an oil port 482 miles east of Tripoli, at the behest of the country’s Islamic affairs department to demonstrate on state television that the war-torn city was controlled by government forces.
“They asked the group to show all the world that Brega is a safe place,” said the teacher, Sheik Atiya Ali Amer, 25.
Amer had escaped the bombing without a scratch, although the attack reduced a large building to rubble, according to photos provided by the government. He said that he escaped after the first airstrike and that seven of his group of 16 — all from Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town 278 miles east of Tripoli — had died in the attack. Other religious leaders from elsewhere in the country also died, he said, displaying little emotion.
Amer denounced NATO as a “terrorism association,” but he also said that calling for acts of terrorism against NATO countries, as one Libyan religious leader did Friday, was against the Koran.
“We are just asking for peace,” he said.
Asked later why the dead were being laid to rest in faraway Tripoli, a government minder said, “There were no journalists in Brega,” adding that officials wanted to let the world know what had happened.
The Libyan government has not allowed Tripoli-based journalists to travel to Brega.
Another mourner at the funeral said that his uncle, an oil company worker, was among those killed Friday.
“They came here to protect Libya? It’s a joke,” said Bashir Hamoda, 31, a petroleum engineer, referring to NATO. “We know that maybe sometimes our government has done wrong things, but we can fix things ourselves,” he said, saying that a majority of Libyans supported Gaddafi.
It seemed possible that both accounts — the government’s and NATO’s — contained an element of truth and that civilians had died in a guesthouse over a military bunker. Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said in recent days that Libya had allowed civilians to serve as human shields at Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound.
Ibrahim did not respond to phone calls, e-mails or text messages Saturday seeking to resolve the conflicts between the official version of what happened in Brega and what mourners told journalists. There was also no explanation for the discrepancy between the death toll given by the government and the number of dead being buried in Tripoli.
Also Saturday, rebel officials met in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.