Obama condemns violence in Libya, asks for 'full range of options'

By William Branigin, Mary Beth Sheridan and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 5:51 PM

President Obama strongly condemned the Libyan government's violence against protesters Wednesday, calling the bloodshed in the North African nation "outrageous" and "unacceptable" and saying he has asked his administration to "prepare a full range of options" to respond to the crisis.

In a brief appearance at the White House with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by his side, Obama delivered his strongest denunciation to date on the brutal crackdown unleashed by longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi against an opposition movement seeking his ouster. But Obama never mentioned Gaddafi by name, and he did not specify any actions that the United States is prepared to take beyond condemnations.

"We strongly condemn the use of violence in Libya," Obama said. "The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable. So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya. . . . This violence must stop."

Obama added: "I've also asked my administration to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis. This includes those actions we may take and those we will coordinate with our allies and partners, or those that we'll carry out through multilateral institutions."

Obama said Libyans' rights to assemble, speak freely and "determine their own destiny" are human rights that are "not negotiable." And he said the Libyan government must be held accountable for the violence it has unleashed.

"This is not simply a concern of the United States," he said. "The entire world is watching."

He said Clinton would travel to Geneva on Monday to attend a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting on Libya and coordinate with other countries.

Popular upheavals that have spread across the Middle East and North Africa, deposing long-entrenched autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, are "being driven by the people of the region," Obama said. "This change doesn't represent the work of the United States or any foreign power. It represents the aspirations of people who are seeking a better life."

Obama spoke after hundreds of U.S. citizens living in Libya boarded a ferry for an evacuation trip to the island of Malta. The ferry was chartered by the U.S. government and set to depart from a Tripoli port.

As of Tuesday, the State Department had been unable to get Libya's permission to fly American citizens out of the country, officials said, prompting the U.S. government to temper its response to the Libyan crackdown.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Libyan officials had promised over the weekend to support U.S. efforts to evacuate Americans but that the necessary permits for charter flights had not been granted.

"What we can't figure out is whether there's just chaos at the airport, which is entirely possible, or whether the Libyans are not cooperating," Crowley said in an interview.

With air evacuations seemingly not an option, the government chartered a ferry to take U.S. citizens to Malta on Wednesday. The U.S. Embassy said on its Web sites that Americans should bring the necessary travel documents, medications and essentials such as food, water and diapers with them for the six-hour journey.

Spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens who are not themselves citizens can accompany their relatives if they have proper travel documents, the embassy said. Citizens were expected to make their own travel plans from Malta, and to reimburse the U.S. government for the cost of the ferry trip.

Clinton reiterated her "alarm" Tuesday about the loss of protesters' lives in Libya but added that "the safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority."

Libya has been swept by angry demonstrations for more than a week, and leader Moammar Gaddafi vowed again Tuesday to put down the revolt.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Gaddafi's speech "amounted to him declaring war on his own people." Several U.S. lawmakers called for reimposing sanctions against Libya that were lifted by the administration of George W. Bush.

Crowley was reserved, however, when asked about Gaddafi's speech. "This is ultimately and fundamentally an issue between . . . the Libyan government, its leader and the Libyan people," he told reporters. He called on the government to respect universal rights but did not condemn Gaddafi by name.

"There's a sequence here. The first step is to get American citizens out of harm's way," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "The second step is to fully document the human rights violations that are occurring. And the third step will be to take appropriate action under our laws."

Washington has limited leverage over Libya, which it had shunned for decades before reestablishing full diplomatic relations in 2008 after Gaddafi's government renounced support for terrorist groups.

U.S. officials are also aware of Gaddafi's penchant for blaming foreigners for the country's problems. The Libyan leader gave his speech Tuesday in front of one of his Tripoli residences that was bombed by U.S. forces in 1986 and left unrepaired. "We defied America from here, America with its power," Gaddafi declared, vowing to "die here as a martyr" rather than flee Libya.

About 5,000 U.S. citizens live in Libya, most of them dual nationals. Roughly 600 American residents don't have Libyan citizenship, Crowley said. The State Department on Sunday ordered the departure of 35 U.S. diplomats and their families.

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday condemned Libya's "use of force against civilians" and the "repression of peaceful demonstrators." The council called on Libyan authorities to show restraint, respect freedom of the press and provide immediate access for international human rights agencies and aid agencies.

The 15-nation council met at the request of Libya's deputy ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who has broken with Gaddafi. Dabbashi had urged the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent attacks on civilians and to authorize an international investigation of alleged war crimes.

Dabbashi said he appreciated the council's tough rebuke of Libya, although he would have preferred more forceful action.

He also said he had received fresh evidence of a crackdown by Gaddafi's forces in western Libya.

"I hope the information I get is not accurate," he said. "If it is right, it will be a real genocide."

sheridanm@washpost.com lynchc@washpost.com

Lynch reported from the United Nations. Staff writers Felicia Sonmez and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

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