WASHINGTON — With hundreds of U.S. citizens trapped for now in Libya, the Obama administration is responding cautiously to leader Moammar Gadhafi's brutal attempt to suppress a rebellion, fearing that the wrong move might bring retaliation against Americans, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The fate of about 600 U.S. citizens, along with 35 non-essential Embassy staff, whom the State Department is trying to evacuate, puts President Barack Obama in an excruciating diplomatic bind.
Despite the regime's ongoing massacres that have killed hundreds of civilians, and executions of security personnel who refuse to take part in the atrocities, Obama hasn't called on Gadhafi to leave. That's a striking difference from his role in easing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power after a much less bloody revolution earlier this month.
There was mounting pressure Tuesday on the Obama administration to take a tougher stand.
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The chairmen of both the House and Senate foreign relations committees called on Obama to re-impose economic sanctions on Libya that were lifted in 2004.
"While it's true that America has less influence in Tripoli than elsewhere in the region, we're not without options, particularly in partnership with the broader international community," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in a statement. Kerry called for strong action by the United Nations Security Council.
After meeting to discuss the crisis, the Security Council on Tuesday evening called in a statement "for an immediate end to the violence." The council's 15 members "condemned the violence and use of force against civilians, deplored the repression against peaceful demonstrators, and expressed deep regret at the deaths of hundreds of civilians," it said.
But there were no immediate plans to impose harsher measures, such as a "no-fly zone" that could stop Libyan military aircraft from attacking protesters.
The session was preceded by a bizarre rivalry over who'd speak for Libya: its U.N. ambassador, who remains a Gadhafi loyalist, or his deputy, who broke with the regime. The ambassador spoke, but afterward his deputy appeared before reporters, denouncing the Libyan leader.
Senior U.S. officials, some of whom requested anonymity because of the situation's sensitivity, said Washington is contemplating stronger actions in the days ahead.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday called the violence in Libya "completely unacceptable." She said, "As we gain a greater understanding of what actually is happening . . . we will take appropriate steps in line with our policies, our values and our laws."
"As always, the safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority," she said. Clinton didn't mention Gadhafi by name.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said 35 U.S. Embassy personnel and families, who were ordered to leave Libya on Monday, haven't yet been able to depart. "The fact is today we were not able to move any of our personnel out of the country," he said.
The State Department said late Tuesday that it had chartered a ferry for U.S. citizens wanting to leave Libya that would depart from Tripoli on Wednesday to the islands of Malta, across the Mediterranean Sea.
In a "warden message" to U.S. citizens in the country, the Embassy in Tripoli said travelers would be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis and that the ferry would depart no later than 3 p.m. local time. It did not say how many passengers the ferry holds.
The relatively small embassy staff is also helping some of the roughly 600 U.S. citizens in the country, many of whom work for energy companies, depart.
Concerns that U.S. citizens might get caught up in the chaos grew Tuesday when Gadhafi gave a defiant, rambling speech in which he appeared to blame the U.S. for the insurrection that's divided the country.
"We defy America," Gadhafi said at one point.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that British nationals in Libya "have encountered significant difficulties" trying to leave.
A Royal Navy Frigate, the HMS Cumberland, was being deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to help if necessary, Hague said. A U.S. official said no similar action is currently being considered.
Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush, said the U.S. should push to freeze Libyan bank accounts; suspend the country from the U.N. Human Rights Council; seek agreement on a weapons embargo; and send humanitarian aid to Libyans via Egypt or Tunisia.
Abrams, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there also should be international discussion of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.
"I cannot see that we have done anything," he said of the Obama administration. Abrams said he'd heard that the "main constraint" on the administration's public statements is fear for the safety of U.S. citizens.
Meanwhile, the Arab League announced it's suspending Libya's participation in the 22-member body.
Arab League Chief Amr Moussa announced the step to reporters in Cairo, saying the use of heavy weapons and mercenaries against the protesters was a "grave breach of human rights." He also demanded that Libyan authorities restore communication channels and urged Arab and international organizations to send humanitarian aid into the Libya.
Elsewhere, Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said the 27-nation EU was suspending a framework trade agreement it had been negotiating with Libya, Reuters reported.
(McClatchy special correspondent Miret El Naggar contributed to this story from Cairo.)
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