Libyan traditional leaders gathered in the capital of Tripoli on May 5, 2011 to express their support for the government against the counter-revolutionary rebels largely based in sections of the eastern region. They called for peace in the country., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
MIDDLE EAST NEWS
MAY 14, 2011
Libya Says NATO Killed Clerics, as Regime Faces Arrests
By RICHARD BOUDREAUX in Tripoli and SAM DAGHER in Benghazi, Libya
Libya's government said 11 Muslim religious leaders on a peace mission were killed early Friday in an airstrike by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the contested coastal city of Brega. The account couldn't be verified, but it prompted a Libyan cleric to call on the world's Muslims to kill in revenge.
Moments after his regime announced the attack, Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi taunted NATO, saying in a recorded address that he had survived recent airstrikes on two of his compounds and is "in a place where you can't get me."
NATO shrugged off the colonel's statement. "We are not targeting him, our targets are solely military," alliance spokeswoman Carmen Romero said in Brussels.
Meanwhile, in the Hague, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for three Libyans for alleged crimes against humanity, ramping up international pressure on Col. Gadhafi's 41-year regime.
The ICC didn't say if Col. Gadhafi was one of the three. Chief ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who submitted the requests for warrants last week, is scheduled to speak on the situation in Libya on Monday.
As Libya's insurgency entered its 13th week, battles raged on at least two fronts. Col. Gadhafi's militias resumed rocket attacks on Misrata, reportedly killing 10 civilians, two days after losing control of the western city's airport.
In the east, rebel forces were fighting to expand westward from their home base in Benghazi toward Brega, a major oil center.
NATO, coordinating its air attacks with rebel ground forces, carried out a predawn strike in Brega against a "clearly identified" military command site that "was being used to coordinate attacks against the Libyan people," said Capt. Dennis Power, a spokesman at the alliance's operational headquarters in Naples.
Col. Ahmed Bani, a rebel military spokesman, said the strike had hit homes in Brega used by the government to store rocket launchers, machine guns and other weapons.
The rebel spokesman said there were practically no civilians left in the war-torn city.
But at a news conference on the grounds of Tripoli's soaring Mawlana Mohammed Mosque, Libya's government spokesman, a tribal leader and two Muslim clerics offered a different account. They said the target was a guest house where part of a 150-member Muslim peace mission en route to the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya was spending the night.
The spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, displayed a video clip of the group's members in clerical robes, gathered for prayer on a wharf. He said the video had been taken Thursday evening in Brega.
"Their prayer was for God almighty to stop the bloodshed in Libya," said Sheikh Ali Abu Suwa, an imam at the Tripoli mosque, adding that the group had planned to urge their counterparts in rebel-held territory to help end the insurgency.
Libyan state TV showed images of several bodies laid out in two rows and the ruins of a concrete building with its façade blown off. Most of the bodies had visible wounds and some were covered with dust.
There was no independent confirmation of the government account. Tripoli-based journalists are restricted in their movements and weren't taken to Brega.
Survivors of the bombing, including 45 who were wounded, were still in Brega, Mr. Ibrahim said.
By Friday evening, the alleged slaying of Muslim religious leaders by Western military forces had become part of the government's narrative of the conflict, proving, in Mr. Ibrahim's words, that NATO is "a barbaric organization interested only in power, dominance and oil."
Sheikh Nureddin al-Mijrah, another imam at the Tripoli mosque, said at the news conference that NATO was "humiliating our religion and our nation."
He called on Muslims of the world "to take revenge for our brothers who died today. For every man, we should take down 1,000 men from France, Britain, Italy, Denmark, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates" for their governments' support of the NATO operations.
It was believed to be the first declaration from Libya for an Islamic holy war against Col. Gadhafi's adversaries, but its potential impact was uncertain. Other imams at the news conference didn't echo his call, and Mr. Ibrahim, the government spokesman, said the imams weren't speaking for the regime.
In his brief recorded message, played on TV without video, Col. Gadhafi said he wanted to assure Libyans concerned about a NATO strike Thursday on his headquarters, the second strike since April 30 on his compounds in Tripoli. "I tell the coward crusaders, I live in a place where you can't get to me," he said. "I live in the hearts of millions."
Mr. Ibrahim said the Libyan leader was "in good health" and working in Tripoli.
Col. Gadhafi is expected to be among the three regime members sought for arrest by the International Criminal Court, said diplomats and analysts. A warrant would be enforceable by any member of the United Nations—the ICC has no police force—and the prospect of arrest reduces the chance that Col. Gadhafi would agree to step down from power, say analysts.
"If he is willing to contemplate any sort of political settlement, the second he's indicted, that option is no longer there," says Daniel Korski, an analyst with the London-based European Council for Foreign Relations.
Mr. Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, said last week that the three for whom he sought arrest warrants appeared to bear the greatest responsibility for alleged crimes against humanity, including "widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population."
The judicial process at the ICC was initiated by the United Nations Security Council, which voted in February to ask the Hague-based court to investigate the Gadhafi regime's crackdown against protesters.
Col. Gadhafi's arrest by Libyan authorities in Tripoli would be unlikely. If he chose to step down, he could possibly find refuge elsewhere in Africa, where he remains influential as a result of generous Libyan aid to countries on the continent.
Col. Gadhafi's forces, meanwhile, harassed rebel positions southeast and west of Misrata Friday, after being pushed back from the city's outskirts, residents said.
Dr. Ayman Abu Shahma, a Misrata surgeon, said two siblings, 2 and 5 years old, were among those killed in Friday's rocket attack, which came from west of the city, and the children's mother and 4-year-old sister were wounded. The surgeon provided photographs of the wounded girl during an operation to amputate her leg.
His account of casualties couldn't be verified independently because of difficulties getting access to the embattled city.
—John W. Miller and Stephen Fidler contributed to this article
Write to John W. Miller at email@example.com and Richard Boudreaux at firstname.lastname@example.org