US steps up pressure on Gaddafi
WASHINGTON – The United States Thursday called on the UN Human Rights Council to dump Libya and consulted key allies on imposing sanctions, accelerating the international drive to halt Moamer Kadhafi’s brutal protest crackdown.
US officials meanwhile nervously awaited the weather-delayed sailing of a chartered ferry carrying nearly 300 Americans and other foreigners on an evacuation mission from violence-wracked Tripoli to Malta.
After being accused of reacting too slowly to the onslaught of violence against civilians and opposition demonstrators in Libya, the administration cranked up the pace of its public diplomacy.
“We support expelling Libya from the Human Rights Council,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.
The world’s top human rights body has called an unprecedented special session against one of its own members on Friday. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will join a ministerial meeting at the council on Monday in Geneva.
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President Barack Obama called French President Nicolas Sarkozy and was to consult British Prime Minister David Cameron to coordinate international measures against Kadhafi’s regime, as aides said “all options” were on the table.
“We’re examining a lot of options. Sanctions are one of them,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, amid reports that economic sanctions, asset freezes and even a “no fly zone” to protect civilian leaders were under discussion.
Sarkozy’s office said in a statement that in the face of “continuing brutal and bloody repression” in Libya, the two presidents reiterated their demand for an “immediate halt to the use of force against the civilian population.”
Sarkozy meanwhile said France would “demand a new urgent meeting of the UN Security Council on the situation in Libya.”
As speculation reverberated through Washington on what kind of international measures Kadhafi may face, Crowley noted that the US military had been a “full participant” in discussions about options to present to Obama.
But officials also stressed the extreme sensitivity of the situation, apparently seeking to ensure any action against Libya did not spark a backlash.
“Whatever steps that we do take, we want them to be effective. And we certainly don’t want to take any actions that put either our citizens or the citizens of other countries at risk,” Crowley said.
The flurry of US comment on Libya followed Obama’s first televised statement on the crisis on Wednesday, in which he called on the world to speak with one voice to condemn the Libyan government.
It also came on a day when Kadhafi claimed in a tirade carried on Libyan television that opposition demonstrators against his four-decades-old rule were “trigger-happy” youths “stoned with drugs” inspired by Osama bin Laden.
US officials declined to be drawn on the tirade, but direct US contacts with parts of the apparently teetering Kadhafi regime also emerged, including an apparent attempt by the volatile Libyan strongman to contact Washington.
The number three ranked State Department official Bill Burns, who was heading from Algiers to Rome Thursday, spoke twice with Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa to express gratitude for cooperation shown in helping with the evacuation, Crowley said.
Crowley said there had been no attempt by Washington to contact Kadhafi directly, but added: “that said, in the various contacts that we’ve had with Libyan officials, they have actually passed messages to us from Mr. Kadhafi.”
US officials said privately that Obama’s circumspect tone on the crisis, which opened him up to criticism at home, had been motivated by fears that American citizens trapped in the path of the revolt and vicious crackdown could face reprisals.
The chartered ferry riding out stormy weather in Tripoli has 285 passengers aboard, including 40 US diplomats and family members, 127 other Americans and 118 foreigners also fleeing the raging political violence, officials said.
“The Libyans are securing their port, at which the ship is docked. We have security officials on board the ship as well,” Crowley said.
The vessel had originally been scheduled to cast off on Wednesday.
A senior US official said on condition of anonymity that there had been no effort by Libyan officials to interfere with the boat or its manifest.
Washington also hopes to run a charter flight into Libya on Friday to pick up more fleeing Americans.
There was also concern on Friday about the domestic impact of raised oil prices on the US economic recovery, with three Democratic lawmakers calling on Obama to tap the US strategic stockpile of oil reserves to control gasoline prices.
Carney however played down any immediate fears that Libya’s turmoil could disrupt global oil supplies in the short term.
“We are in touch with the IEA (International Energy Agency) and we have the capacity to act in the event of any particular supply disruption,” he said.