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Pressure Grows On Libya's Qaddafi To Quit

  • RFE/RL

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says it's time for Qaddafi "to go."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says it's time for Qaddafi "to go."

International pressure is growing on Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi to step down, while his government waged fresh offensives in an effort reclaim towns held by the opposition.

Foreign ministers meeting in Geneva called on Qaddafi to relinquish power in order to avoid more bloodshed.

In Brussels, European Union governments approved a package of sanctions against Qaddafi and his closest advisers that include an arms embargo and a ban on travel to the bloc.

Estimates put the death toll as high as 1,000 people after more than two weeks of government crackdowns on protesters.

The 27 EU states also agreed to freeze the assets of Qaddafi, his family, and the government, and to ban the sale of tear gas and antiriot equipment that could be used against the demonstrators.

The Violence Goes On

An army tank manned by soldiers is surrounded by protesters in the city of Zawiya.
The uptick in diplomatic activity comes as violence continues in the North African country.

Witnesses say forces loyal to Qaddafi have tried but failed to retake Zawiya, the rebel-held city closest to the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

They said on March 1 that pro-Qaddafi troops supported by tanks and antiaircraft guns tried to retake the city of Zawiya on the night of February 28 in six hours of fighting, attacking rebel positions from six directions.

They said the rebels managed to push back the attackers. Zawiya is 50 kilometers west of Tripoli.

In Misurata, another key opposition-held city, antigovernment forces claimed to have shot down one Libyan Air Force plane that was flying over the city.

Meanwhile, pro-Qaddafi forces said they retook control of border crossings with Tunisia.

Witnesses also said an air force plane bombed an opposition-held munitions depot near the eastern city of Ajdabiya. Libya's Defense Ministry denies this.

The online Libyan newspaper “Quryna” reported that several people were killed and others wounded after pro-Qaddafi forces opened fire to disperse a protest in the capital, Tripoli.

In Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the UN rights body that it was time for Qaddafi to step down.

"Colonel Qaddafi and those around him must be held accountable for these acts which violate international legal obligations and common decency,” she said. “It is time for Qaddafi to go -- now, without further violence or delay."

She said Washington is “reaching out” to Libyans in the east of the country, where protesters have largely wrested control from pro-Qaddafi forces. She pledged the United States would be “ready and prepared to offer any kind of assistance” to them.

Clinton’s message was echoed by other foreign ministers, including British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said there would be a "day of reckoning" for rights abusers in Libya or elsewhere.

Germany's Guido Westerwelle proposed a 60-day international freeze on all financial payments to Libya in order to prevent money from going to Qaddafi.

And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the violent crackdown on protesters by Qaddafi's regime is unacceptable. "Russia condemns such violence and demands its immediate discontinuation and full respect for international humanitarian law," he said.

Pentagon Repositions Naval Vessels

Meantime, a Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. military is repositioning naval and air forces around Libya. Colonel David Lapan said the move would allow for “flexibility once decisions are made.”

Clinton denied that there was any pending military action involving U.S. naval vessels, but reiterated the U.S. administration’s position that “nothing is off the table.”

A screen grab of Qaddafi telling Libyans he has no intention of stepping aside.
Speaking to foreign journalists at a restaurant on Tripoli's coast, Qaddafi laughed off a question on whether he would step down as numerous world leaders have demanded.

"They love me. All my people [are] with me. They love me all," he said. "They will die to protect me, my people."

Qaddafi said the United States had abandoned him and suggested that Washington wanted to occupy the North African country.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said the Libyan ruler’s interview justified calls for him to leave:

"It sounds just, frankly, delusional. And when [Qaddafi] can laugh in talking to American and international journalists while he is slaughtering his own people, it only underscores how unfit he is to lead and how disconnected he is from reality," she said.

Rice was speaking shortly after the U.S. Treasury Department announced it had frozen a record $30 billion of Libyan assets over the weekend.

David Cohen, the acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the amount was the largest total ever blocked by a single order issued by the U.S. government.

Earlier, Clinton held a series of meetings with European officials in a bid to coordinate an international response.

The talks reportedly focused on proposals for a UN-backed no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Qaddafi's jets and helicopter gun ships from carrying out strafing and bombing runs against demonstrators.

Clinton told reporters that a no-fly zone is an option that Washington and its allies are “actively considering." British Prime Minister David Cameron and Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd expressed support for the plan.

However, some diplomats said a no-fly zone was unnecessary because most of the reported human rights violations in Libya have been carried out by pro-government ground troops.

Qaddafi ‘Could Come Back’

But residents of the coastal city of Misurata -- who gained control of the airport and all major military and port installations last week – said they feared government troops could be flown into eastern Libya to try to retake territory that had slipped out of Qaddafi's control during the past week.

Reports from Misurata, about 220 kilometers east of Tripoli, said some pro-government security forces had been dropped from a military helicopter onto a nearby beach during the weekend in an unsuccessful attempt to take back or knock out the local radio station.

Antigovernment forces in Misurata claimed that they shot down one Libyan air force plane that was flying over the city.

Qaddafi's violent crackdown has been referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said a preliminary probe was going on into possible crimes against humanity committed by pro-government forces.

He said a team had been in contact with Libyan army officers to gather information about recent civilian deaths. Some reports put the death toll as high as 1,000.

The UN’s refugee agency says a “humanitarian emergency” is under way as more than 100,000 people have fled Libya to neighboring countries and that thousands more continue to arrive at the borders. A number of Western countries have mobilized relief efforts.

written by Ron Synovitz and Richard Solash, with contributions from agency reports