TRIPOLI (Reuters) – At a clifftop cemetery overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Libyans buried their dead, killed, government officials said, by Western bombs.
At an event for escorted foreign reporters, pro-government Libyans raged against western warplanes and missiles they said had spewed death over the Libyan capital at the weekend.
The mourners themselves spoke in quieter tones and the conflicting accounts they gave for the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their loved ones made it difficult to assess the veracity of the official version.
As a cleric fired up people who said they were mourners at the cemetery and plainclothes security men defiantly fired assault rifles into the air, the uncle of a three-month-old girl stood over her freshly dug grave, covered with a few roses.
The uncle, Muhammad Salim, who seemed calm, said the airstrike that hit the girl’s house also wounded her mother. Her father offered a different account, saying no one was injured.
“Is this what they call democracy? This is nothing but the killing of innocent people. Babies,” yelled one teen-ager as other tempers began to flare and calls for jihad erupted.
A Libyan government health official said 64 people had been killed in the bombardment overnight in the biggest intervention against an Arab country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said he had seen no reports of civilian casualties from the Western strikes. But Russia said there had been such casualties and called on Britain, France and the United States to halt the “non-selective use of force.”
Government minders who closely oversee journalist movement in the capital declined to take reporters in Tripoli to the sites of the bombings or hospitals treating alleged victims of airstrikes Gaddafi has equated with terrorism.
One of the victims was Ramadan al Zirgany but relatives gave reporters conflicting stories about his job, how he died and his age. Some said he was a taxi driver, others said he was unemployed.
Accounts of his death ranged from a wall collapsing on him after a bomb struck near Gaddafi’s Tripoli headquarters to a cruise missile hitting his car.
Some around Zirgany’s burial plot complained that Libya had been singled out by Western states who were guilty of double standards. Why, they asked, did crackdowns on dissent in other Arab countries like Bahrain or Yemen fail to provoke Western military action?
“This is a plot against Libya,” said Muhammad al Himalee, 30, a water company employee. Like others, he said he had come to mourn the dead out of his own free will.
“The government had nothing to do with this,” he said.
People at the graveyard scene, broadcast on state television, agreed on one thing: that Libya was the victim of a ruthless global Western conspiracy to steal its oil.
“If the West wants to steal our oil then can have it. But we will burn it and burn them in the process,” said Ahmed al Dawee, 30, a clothes merchant.
Gaddafi said Saturday he would arm civilians to defend Libya from what he called “colonial, crusader” aggression by Western forces that have launched air strikes against him.
“That’s a great idea. Lots of Libyans already have weapons. But if he wants to give us more we will take them,” al Dawee said.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)