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Obama warns Gaddafi loyalists

As fighting continues in Libya, tens of thousands of guest workers from Egypt, Tunisia and other countries are fleeing to escape the violence. The situation is quickly turning into a humanitarian emergency for the border country of Tunisia which is being overwhelmed with migrant workers.

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 7, 2011; 10:52 PM

President Obama addressed comments directly to Moammar Gaddafi's inner circle Monday in an attempt to pressure those helping prop up the embattled Libyan dictator with a tacit threat of future criminal prosecution.

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Much of the administration's policy has been focused on persuading those around Gaddafi, who is confronting an armed rebel force seeking to end his 41-year rule, to actively turn against him.

In the days after the regime's crackdown began, senior administration officials said, the United States appealed directly to Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, a former intelligence chief who has maintained ties with U.S. diplomats and CIA officials for more than a decade.

The Libyan minister spoke at length with U.S. officials by phone and was cautioned directly about the use of deadly force against protesters, according to two top administration officials familiar with the exchange who would describe it only on the condition of anonymity. But U.S. intelligence officials say Kusa has shown no sign of turning against Gaddafi and appears to have decided to remain with the government and his longtime commander.

The appeal to senior Libyan officials reflects the administration's assessment that Gaddafi is unlikely to step down on his own, even under extreme pressure, and that the best way to dislodge him from power is to peel away his closest confidants.

The administration's application of financial sanctions on senior Libyan officials, NATO's increased satellite surveillance of military operations and the U.N. threat of an International Criminal Court indictment have been adopted to exert pressure on the inner circle. But Monday was the first time Obama addressed Gaddafi's closest allies directly, warning: "We continue to monitor the violence there."

"I want to send a very clear message to those who are around Colonel Gaddafi," Obama said during an Oval Office appearance with visiting Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. "It is their choice to make, how they operate moving forward, and they will be held accountable for whatever violence continues to take place there."

Obama spoke as forces loyal to Gaddafi fought to claw back territory lost to Libya's armed opposition, including towns in and around the capital, Tripoli. Much of the country's east is in rebel hands, and Gaddafi is deploying air and ground forces to retake many towns important to Libya's oil industry - the lifeblood of the economy - and those providing a strategic cushion around Tripoli.

Debate over no-fly zone

The increasingly bloody stalemate on the ground is heightening calls for establishing a no-fly zone above Libya to protect rebel-held areas from government airstrikes. The idea is threatening to divide Washington along partisan lines, with Republican lawmakers arguing more strenuously for a no-fly zone than Democrats, although senators from both sides of the aisle have called for one.

Libya's opposition forces have asked for a no-fly zone but have warned the United States and its European allies against sending any troops into the country.

Obama has been among the most cautious heads of state on the issue of military involvement in Libya, concerned that injecting the United States more directly into a third conflict in a Muslim nation would undermine the revolt's popular nature.

The issue, along with less aggressive steps such as the electronic jamming of the Libyan government's radio communications, will be taken up Thursday in Brussels at a meeting of NATO defense ministers.


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