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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)

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

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.

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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.


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