By Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 12:31 AM
The United States and its European allies tightened their noose around Libya's besieged government Monday, positioning military assets for possible action in the Mediterranean as they launched humanitarian efforts to assist refugees and rebel forces that have seized the eastern part of the country.
Britain and the European Union announced new sanctions against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, his family and his government. The U.S. Treasury announced that it has frozen $30 billion worth of Libyan assets in this country under an executive order President Obama issued Friday, the most ever blocked under such a program.
On the ground, rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi appeared at least temporarily to be at a standoff, with neither side taking more territory. Gaddafi's air force bombed weapons depots, apparently to prevent the rebels from gaining access to them.
In an interview with foreign reporters, Gaddafi declared that "my people love me" and denied there were any protests in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, where civilians have reportedly been gunned down by his forces.
Susan E. Rice, the administration's ambassador to the United Nations, said Gaddafi was "delusional" and "disconnected from reality." She cited "an egregious and widely reported series of mass killings by security forces on innocents" in Tripoli and elsewhere.
In Geneva, U.S. and European leaders focused on sending aid to rebels and refugees. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that $10 million in relief funds have been set aside by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and two teams of experts are being dispatched immediately to Libya's borders to assess the refugee crisis and organize the delivery of aid.
Although the administration has repeatedly demanded legal accountability for Gaddafi, Clinton hinted that the United States might be willing to accept a deal in which the Libyan leader would voluntarily agree to exile in a third country. She raised the possibility at a news conference at which she was asked whether Gaddafi might be permitted to seek refuge with Zimbabwe's leader, Robert Mugabe.
While "I was almost rendered speechless by the idea of him and Mugabe together," Clinton said, "we want the violence to end, and if the violence could be ended by his leaving . . . that might be a good thing."
Obama has not spoken publicly about Libya since last week, when he warned the Libyan leader against continued violence toward his people. Last weekend, the White House released a statement saying Obama wanted Gaddafi to step down. For now, it has left it to others on his senior national security team to "amplify that message" in public, a senior administration official said.
The official said Obama was receiving up to three briefings a day on the Libyan situation and on Monday held an Oval Office meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He "doesn't need to give a play-by-play" public analysis of the rapidly changing situation, the official said of the president.
Instead, Obama's senior aides are "looking for an opportunity for him in the next few weeks to be articulating a broader set of ideas about how we see the change in the region . . . and the implications for U.S. policy" in the wake of crises across the Middle East and North Africa, the official said.
Although Clinton and several European leaders said imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya was under active consideration, other senior U.S. and European officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, emphasized that there had not yet been any significant political discussions of such action. It would be unlikely, they said, unless Gaddafi turned his air force directly against the Libyan people.
Other than the bombing of arms depots, "I don't think we've seen . . . indications they're bombing people," the senior administration official said. But reports on the ground "are disturbing enough to merit contingency planning, and the nature of the threats does indicate a potential for escalation," the official said. "We want to have options in place."
For the moment, the United States and its European allies are counting on the harsh financial and travel restrictions in place, along with the threat of international human rights prosecution, to prompt Libyan military and government officials still loyal to Gaddafi to reconsider their position.
A Pentagon official said the U.S. military has been planning for some scenarios since last week and moved Monday to reposition naval and air assets for "various contingency plans," including a no-fly zone and humanitarian evacuations and assistance.
Movement of two aircraft carriers that are in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf area was within the "range of possibilities," the Pentagon official said, but still under discussion. This official and others said that U.S. and NATO forces had sufficient resources in Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean to take a number of actions if necessary.
A U.S. destroyer passed through the Suez Canal on Sunday and took up position in the southwestern Mediterranean, another U.S. military official said. An amphibious assault ship, the USS Kearsarge, with helicopters aboard, was in the Red Sea and headed toward the canal. The USS Ponce, another amphibious assault vessel, was also moving toward the area, the official said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament on Monday that he had asked his military to "work on plans for a no-fly zone" and noted that "military aircraft in Malta are ready to fly on very short notice." Britain also has a naval destroyer and a frigate, used in evacuation operations, in position off Libya, Cameron said.
A senior official at NATO headquarters in Brussels said, "The focus right now is on strengthening sanctions. No government has yet called for NATO to do anything."
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters Friday that a no-fly zone would require international authorization through the United Nations.
The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted tough economic sanctions and a travel ban against Gaddafi, his family and government Saturday. But some members, citing U.N. disagreement with what the George W. Bush administration said was international authorization for a no-fly zone in Iraq, expressed reluctance to include anything that could be construed as authorization for military action.
There was no indication of preparations to provide military assistance to anti-Gaddafi forces or recognize an opposition government, whose leaders are largely unknown.
"We don't have the broad contacts" in Libya "that we had in Egypt," the senior administration official said, and rebel forces appeared to be a conglomeration of disparate tribal and political groups.
"What we're trying to do is leverage all the different contacts and channels that we can," the official said. "This is a new set of actors. We're exploring not just the people we have telephone numbers for, but the business community that has experience working in eastern Libya and other nongovernmental organizations who have people on the ground" in an effort to "get a better ground truth."
Warrick reported from Geneva. Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.