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U.S., Europe tighten noose around Libya's government

Men seek bread while waiting to enter Tunisia after fleeing Libya. The United States has put aside $10 million in relief funds.
Men seek bread while waiting to enter Tunisia after fleeing Libya. The United States has put aside $10 million in relief funds. (Spencer Platt)

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.

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