(Reuters) - Tears, chants and volleys of gunfire fired into the air punctuated the funeral for nine imams Libya said NATO killed in an air strike, but the alliance said the building it struck was a command-and-control center.
NATO is bombing Libya as part of a U.N. mandate to protect civilians. Some NATO members say they will continue until Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who taunted the alliance as a coward whose bombs could not kill him, was forced out.
The nine imams were among 11 people killed in a strike on a guest house in the eastern city of Brega on Friday, the government said. The other two were buried elsewhere.
"May God defeat their (NATO) forces on land, sea and air," shouted a crowd of about 500 at the funeral held at a cemetery near Tripoli's port.
Mourners hoisted the plain wooden coffins above their heads to carry them into the cemetery and they were open to show what looked like bodies wrapped in green shrouds and garlanded with flowers, a Reuters witness said.
"It (NATO's campaign) is one insult after another to the living and the dead," said Abdulrahman as he watched the funerals.
In a statement, NATO defended its action: "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."
Libyan state television broadcast audio remarks by Gaddafi on Friday apparently aimed at quashing speculation about his health sparked by Italy's foreign minister who said he had likely been wounded in a NATO strike and left Tripoli.
"I tell the cowardly crusader (NATO) that I live in a place they cannot reach and where you cannot kill me," said the man on the audio tape, whose voice sounded like Gaddafi's.
"Even if you kill the body you will not be able to kill the soul that lives in the hearts of millions," he said.
NATO struck his Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli on Thursday but government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said he was unharmed, in good spirits and in Tripoli.
NATO said it conducted 148 air sorties on Friday, 44 of them strike sorties that aim to identify and hit targets but do not always deploy munitions.
Rebels have mounted a three-month-old uprising against Gaddafi's rule and control Benghazi and the oil-producing east of Libya. Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting.
Rebel leaders met senior officials at the White House on Friday in a boost to their bid for international legitimacy.
At a press conference in Benghazi on Saturday, rebels denied they were disappointed by a lack of recognition for their cause and rejected partition as a solution for the country.
"Meetings (abroad) have been at the highest level and have been incredibly supportive of the National Transitional Council, so we are actually joyous rather than disappointed," said Aref Nayed, support coordinator for the council.
"There is no stalemate. We are making progress on all fronts .... We don't see progress as only military progress because this revolution was a peaceful humanitarian revolution that was simply calling for simple human rights," he said.
In a fresh sign of diplomatic activity, Greece will send officials to Benghazi to work as a contact group with rebels, Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said on Saturday after talks in Athens with the U.N. envoy for Libya Abdelilah al-Khatib.
A small team will travel to Libya next week with a humanitarian aid ship, a foreign ministry official said.
PORT CITY BATTLES
Tripoli says the rebels are criminals and supporters of al Qaeda and calls NATO strikes acts of colonial aggression by Western powers bent on getting hold of the country's oil.
Rebels have failed to achieve their main military target of toppling Gaddafi and taking Tripoli and the war has reached a virtual stalemate with recent fighting centered on the port city of Misrata in the west and in the Western Mountains region.
Rebels seized Misrata airport this week in a significant breakthrough. They took more territory on the edge of Misrata, said a witness called Ghassan reached by telephone on Saturday.
"The revolutionaries (rebels) are in full control of al Dafiniya, the western entrance to Misrata," said Ghassan.
"On the eastern edge, the rebels are in control of Tammina, an area situated some 25 km east of Misrata and they are trying to advance further east," he said, quoting rebels.
Rebels also seized some parts of Zawiyah, a town 54 km (34 miles) west of Tripoli, the opposition newspaper Brnieq reported on its website on Saturday.
Rebels in the city center pushed government forces to the outskirts and now control several main streets, it said, quoting a rebel spokesman in Zawiyah. The government recaptured Zawiyah on March 14 and has been in control since.