By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Hundreds of mourners gathered on Tuesday for a memorial for slain U.S. envoy to Libya Christopher Stevens, as the Libyan ambassador to Washington called him a "friend and hero" and apologized for his death on behalf of the government in Tripoli.
Stevens, who was killed in September in an attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, was remembered at a service in the marble rotunda at San Francisco's City Hall attended by former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Representative Barbara Lee and Senator Dianne Feinstein.
"On behalf of the Libyan government, we're very sorry. You sent us one of your best diplomats, but unfortunately, we were unable to protect him," Ali Aujali, the Libyan ambassador to the United States, told Stevens' family and friends.
"He's part of Libyan history, the revolution," Aujali said of Stevens, who was raised in the San Francisco area. "We lost a friend and a hero."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday she took responsibility for the security situation at the U.S. compound prior to the September 11 attack that killed four Americans. The attack has become the subject of fierce partisan debate in the U.S. presidential campaign.
But in contrast to the recent political firestorm over Stevens' death and the security arrangements in place at the U.S. mission, political leaders from both parties set aside their differences on Tuesday to honor Stevens, who was 52.
The service began with the National Anthem sung by members of the University of California Men's Glee Club, and speakers included retired U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who heads a State Department panel investigating the attacks that killed Stevens and his three colleagues.
Pickering recalled that when then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's security forces were trailing Stevens, he stole their camera and started photographing them. "They were so dumbfounded they had to laugh," he said.
Friends described Stevens as humble and always interested in others. Stevens' sister, Dr. Anne Stevens Sullivan, said he made friends everywhere, even in elevators, where he would strike up a conversation in French.
Also fluent in Arabic, Stevens served as deputy ambassador to Libya from 2007 to 2009. In April 2011, he became a special envoy to Libya and traveled aboard a Greek cargo ship to Benghazi, where he set up a diplomatic outpost in support of the rebel opposition.
In August 2011, rebel forces backed by NATO power ousted Gaddafi. He was captured and killed two months later. In May, Clinton rewarded Stevens' work in Libya by swearing him in as U.S. ambassador.
Family members said Stevens' ashes would be interred near his grandfather and other relatives in his birthplace of Grass Valley, California.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)