THE HAGUE (Reuters) - An international prosecutor on Monday sought an arrest warrant for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi accusing him of committing crimes against humanity by killing protesters during an uprising against his 41-year rule.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, International Criminal Court prosecutor, also asked judges, who now need to see if there is enough evidence to issue warrants, for the arrest of Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam and his spy chief Abdullah al-Senussi.
Moreno-Ocampo signaled his action earlier this month when said he would seek three arrests for the "pre-determined" killing of protesters in Libya after the U.N. Security Council referred the violence to the Hague-based court in February.
"The office gathered direct evidence about orders issued by Muammar Gaddafi himself, direct evidence of Saif al-Islam organizing the recruitment of mercenaries and direct evidence of the participation of al-Senussi in the attacks against demonstrators," Moreno-Ocampo said at the ICC on Monday.
The prosecutor moved with unprecedented speed in his investigation into the early violence in the uprising against Gaddafi's rule, with the request for arrest warrants coming just 2-1/2 months after the Security Council referral.
He added the office of the prosecutor also documented how the three held meetings "to plan the operations" and Gaddafi used his "absolute authority to commit crimes in Libya."
Libyan officials have already denounced the ICC prosecutor's action, saying the court is a creation of the West for prosecuting African leaders.
Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in Libya, the bloodiest of the revolts which have convulsed the Middle East in what has been called the "Arab Spring."
Libyan officials deny killing civilians, saying instead they were forced to take action against criminal armed gangs and al Qaeda militants. They say a NATO bombing campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya's oil.
Moreno-Ocampo said the swiftness of his investigation stems from global consensus that the crimes committed in Libya had to be investigated, although judges will now need to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed with the warrants.
He said the office of the prosecutor documented how the three named held meetings "to plan the operations" and Gaddafi used his "absolute authority to commit crimes in Libya."
The ICC has no police force and relies on member states to enforce arrests. Despite NATO bombing operations intended to protect civilians, Libya has been plunged into civil war, seriously complicating efforts to arrest ICC suspects.
Moreno-Ocampo had said his request for warrants would be based on "strong evidence," which would include photographs, video footage and the testimony of government insiders.
Libya is not an ICC member state and is therefore not obliged to arrest the court's suspects.
Three months after a revolt began against Gaddafi's four-decade rule, fighting between rebels and government forces on several fronts has come to a near-standstill and Gaddafi is refusing to bow to efforts to force him from power.
NATO warplanes, acting under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, have stopped government troops advancing on rebel strongholds but the collapse of Gaddafi's rule, which many Western governments seek, has not materialized.
After a series of air strikes on his Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Gaddafi taunted the Western military alliance, saying in an audio recording that he was in a place where NATO could not reach him.
General David Richards, Britain's chief of defense staff, said the military campaign to date had been a "significant success" for NATO, but it needed to do more.
"If we do not up the ante now there is a risk that the conflict could result in Gaddafi clinging to power," he told Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
"At present, NATO is not attacking infrastructure targets in Libya. But if we want to increase the pressure on Gaddafi's regime then we need to give serious consideration to increasing the range of targets we can hit," he said.
A spokesman for the Libyan government responded by saying that NATO had already gone beyond its mandate from the United Nations to protect civilians.
"They've already been targeting infrastructure," Khaled Kaim, who is also deputy foreign minister, told a news briefing.
"The interest here is Libyan oil, not protection. It should be called blood for oil, this is the proper name," Kaim said.
ICC UNDER ATTACK
The Libyan official also hit out at the ICC.
"The practices of the ICC are questionable. It's a baby of the European Union designed for (prosecuting) African politicians and leaders," Kaim said.
In the rebel-held city of Misrata, scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the conflict, rebels said they were braced for renewed attacks by forces loyal to Gaddafi.
"The (pro-Gaddafi) brigades still have military equipment enabling them to bombard any area in Misrata," a rebel spokesman called Abdelsalam said from the city. "The revolutionaries are in full control of the port but the danger is still there because the brigades have tanks and rocket-launchers."
The uncertain direction of the Libyan conflict poses a dilemma for Western governments. They face voters who are impatient for quick results and want to avoid a repeat of the long-drawn-out fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An inconclusive outcome is likely to limit Libyan oil exports, keeping world prices high, and drive thousands more migrants to risk death crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.
Previous NATO bombing campaigns, especially in Kosovo in the late 1990s, showed that more aggressive targeting carries with it the risk of civilian casualties.
In Tripoli -- where foreign reporters operate under restrictions on their movement -- the outward signs were that Gaddafi's administration was holding firm.
Security officials in North Africa and elsewhere warn al Qaeda's north African branch could exploit the chaos of a long conflict in Libya to acquire weapons and recruit followers.
(Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Tarek Amara and Sylvia Westall in Tunisia, Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Silvia Aloisi in Rome, Aaron Gray-Block in The Hague: Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Giles Elgood)