TRIPOLI (AFP) – Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi insisted his people loved him but was slammed as “delusional” as Western nations prepared on Tuesday to ramp up pressure to prevent a full-blown catastrophe in his country.
The United States said it had blocked around $30 billion in Libyan assets, the largest amount ever frozen, while the European Union also imposed its toughest international sanctions yet on Kadhafi’s crumbling regime.
US and European leaders weighed the use of NATO air power to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and stop Kadhafi from using air strikes against his own people, as the strongman fights a bloody rearguard action against an uprising now in its third week.
Fears grew over the humanitarian fallout as the United Nations stepped up warnings of a mass exodus. More than 100,000 people have already fled into neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, many of them low-paid migrant workers.
Kadhafi was unrepentant, although his regime now controls only some western areas around the capital and a few long-time bastions in the arid south. Key oil fields in the east have fallen to the opposition.
Human rights groups say at least 1,000 people have been killed in the regime’s harsh crackdown on protesters.
“They love me. All my people with me. They love me all. They will die to protect me,” Kadhafi said in an interview with Western journalists in Tripoli on Monday, laughing off suggestions that he might leave Libya as the White House aired the prospect of exile for him.
US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the interview showed “how unfit he is to lead and how disconnected he is from reality”.
“It sounds just frankly delusional, when he can talk and laugh to an American and (an) international journalist while he is slaughtering his own people,” Rice said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have jointly called for a special meeting of leaders to “consider further European Union action” against the Libyan regime, as the US military said it was repositioning its naval forces in the Mediterranean.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied that military action was imminent but said Kadhafi should quit power “now”.
In Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council, Clinton also said that backing peaceful political transitions was not just a matter of ideals but a “strategic imperative” for the West.
Anger at authoritarian Arab regimes in the Middle East and North Africa raged from Algeria to Yemen and has spread to the previously unaffected Gulf states of Kuwait and Oman, both strategic Western allies.
Huge crowds poured into the centre of the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Tuesday in response to an opposition call for a mass rally against President Ali Abdullah, in power since 1978, drawing angry accusations from the veteran leader that it was all the work of Israel and the United States.
“The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh to leave,” the protesters chanted. “The people want to overthrow the regime.”
Saleh hit back, in an address to university professors at Sanaa University. “The events from Tunisia to Oman are a storm orchestrated from Tel Aviv and and under Washington’s supervision,” he said.
“What is taking place on Yemen’s streets is just a copycat attempt.”
In Oman, armoured cars moved in to disperse protesters who have been demonstrating since Saturday in the key industrial area of Sohar, northwest of the capital Muscat, for jobs and reform in the normally placid Gulf sultanate.
The security forces reopened the main highway to the capital and also the entrance to Oman’s second port. But around 200 protesters maintained a roadblock elsewhere ringed by riot police, an AFP correspondent reported.
There were no immediate reports of any repetition of the deadly violence between police and protesters which rocked the city on Saturday.
Late on Monday, human rights group Amnesty International had called on Oman to rein in its security forces, while Washington urged restraint.
On the ground in Libya, opposition forces in control of the third city Misrata said they thwarted an attack by pro-government forces on Monday and a military helicopter was hit by anti-aircraft fire.
According to witnesses, the cities of Zliten, west of Misrata, and Kadhafi’s hometown of Sirte were still under the control of pro-regime forces.
Canada’s Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said in Geneva on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council meeting that several allies were baulking at the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone.
“In terms of the no-fly zone, there doesn’t seem to be consensus among our allies,” Cannon said.
Cameron admitted earlier the plan was fraught with difficulty: “We would be trying to cover a vast area, it would take a serious amount of military assets to achieve it.”
In Benghazi, the first city to break free of Kadhafi’s 41-year rule, pro-democracy protesters insisted they can unseat the strongman alone, without foreign help.
“The Iraqi example scares everyone in the Arab world,” said Abeir Imneina, a professor of political science at the university of Benghazi, recalling the devastating sectarian violence that rocked Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003.
“We don’t want the Americans to come and then to have to regret Kadhafi,” she added.
As the turmoil raged on in Africa’s fourth largest oil producer, crude prices again rose in Asian trade on Tuesday despite oil kingpin Saudi Arabia’s pledge to ensure sufficient supplies.
New York’s benchmark West Texas Intermediate contract for April delivery rose 46 cents to $97.43 and Brent North Sea crude for April delivery was up 59 cents at $112.39 in the afternoon.
Libya’s opposition said it was resuming oil exports suspended during the unrest, and had loaded a tanker with one million barrels of crude for China.