U.S. still awaiting Libya's permission to evacuate Americans

Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The United States has been unable to get Libya's permission to evacuate American citizens from the country, State Department officials said Tuesday, prompting the administration to temper its response to the Libyan crackdown.

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

Earlier, he told a news briefing that the U.S. government is evaluating options to help Americans leave the country by land or sea, and on Tuesday night, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli announced that it had chartered a ferry to take U.S. citizens to Malta on Wednesday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham 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.

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