TRIPOLI, Libya—Eleven Muslim clerics were killed in their sleep by a NATO airstrike Friday on the eastern oil town of Brega, a Libyan government spokesman said.
The spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, says the clerics were among a large group of imams who had gathered in Brega to pray for peace in conflict-ridden Libya. He said 11 imams were killed and 50 people wounded, including five in critical condition.
NATO, responding to the Libyan claim, said it had attacked a command-and-control center used by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in Brega.
“We’re very careful in the selection of our targets and this one was very clearly identified as a command center,” said an official at NATO’s operational headquarters in Naples, Italy, who under the alliance’s rules could not be named.
NATO has been intensifying airstrikes in many parts of Libya against troops and installations of Gadhafi’s regime in a bid to weaken his campaign against a rebel uprising. One of the recent strikes hit Gadhafi’s main compound in Tripoli, the capital, and more strikes were carried out Friday.
Ibrahim said the imams had convened a prayer service on Thursday that was broadcast by Libyan TV. When it ended, they went to guesthouse to spend the night, and the attack occurred as they slept, he said, adding that the house was reduced to rubble.
“NATO proves that it doesn’t have a moral center,” Ibrahim said. “Now they are moving to kill imams, religious leaders who are calling for peace.”
Ali Abou el-Sowa, an imam who accompanied Ibrahim at the announcement of the attack, said NATO “should expect a very harsh reaction from all Muslims.”
He referred to Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida terrorist leader killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan last week.
“I would like to remind my brothers … how Osama bin Laden came into existence,” the imam said. “He was reacting to the extremist actions by the West against Islam. We do not think al-Qaida is justifiable, but we would like to remind you that hatred begets hatred.”
The alleged strike on Brega came as Gadhafi faced mounting diplomatic pressure to end his 42-year hold on power.
In Washington, a rebel delegation was meeting Friday with officials at the White House. And in the Hague, Netherlands, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said he would seek arrest warrants on Monday for three senior Libyan leaders for murder and persecution—with Gadhafi expected to be among them.
Ibrahim rebutted reports from Europe that Gadhafi may have been injured.
“The leader is in very good health, high morale and high spirits,” Ibrahim said. “The timing of the statement is to cover the horrendous crime they committed in the early hours of this morning against our imams.”