Washington: Ratcheting up the pressure, US President Barack Obama on Saturday said Muammar Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy to rule and urged the Libyan leader to leave power immediately.
It was the first time Obama has called for Gaddafi to step down, coming after days of bloodshed in Libya. Gaddafi has vowed to fight to the end to keep his four-decade grip on power in the North African country.
"When a leader`s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now," the White House said in a statement, summarising Obama`s telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Until now, US officials have held back from such a pronouncement, insisting it is for the Libyan people to decide who their leader should be.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Libyans "have made themselves clear”.
" Gaddafi has lost the confidence of his people and he should go without further bloodshed and violence," she said in a separate statement. "The Libyan people deserve a government that is responsive to their aspirations and that protects their universally recognised human rights."
The administration upped its pressure a day after it froze all Libyan assets in the US that belong to Gaddafi, his government and four of his children. The US also closed its embassy in Libya and suspended the limited defence trade between the countries.
Hillary announced further sanctions on Saturday, revoking visas for senior Libyan officials and their immediate family members. She said applications from these people for travel to the United States would be rejected.
Obama has been conferring with world leaders about the unrest in Libya. The administration is hoping that the world speaks with a single voice against Gaddafi’s violent crackdown on protesters, and Obama is sending Hillary to Geneva on Sunday to coordinate with foreign policy chiefs from several countries.
The UN Security Council met on Saturday to debate new sanctions against Libya but disagreed over a proposal to refer Gaddafi and his top lieutenants to an international war crimes tribunal.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants immediate action to protect Libyan civilians. The UN chief was due in Washington on Monday for talks with Obama at the White House.
The administration has faced increasing pressure to more forcefully condemn Gaddafi and explicitly call for his ouster, as demanded by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Witnesses in Libya said Gaddafi is arming civilian supporters to set up checkpoints and roving patrols in Tripoli, the capital.
The US held back, but its tone shifted sharply on Friday after Americans in Libya were evacuated to safety by ferry and a chartered airplane.
Shortly after, Obama signed an executive order outlining financial penalties designed to pressure Gaddafi’s government into halting the violence. The order said that the instability in Libya constituted an "unusual and extraordinary threat" to US national security and foreign policy.
A nonviolent revolt against Gaddafi’s government began on February 15 amid a wave of uprisings in the Arab world. Most of Libya`s eastern half is under the control of rebels. Witnesses say Gaddafi`s government has responded by shooting at protesters in numerous cities.
Meanwhile, Libya`s top envoy to the US claimed that Gaddafi`s opponents were rallying behind efforts to establish an alternative government led by a former Libyan minister. He said the international community should back the movement.
The claim by Ambassador Ali Aujali couldn`t be immediately verified and it was unclear what support the "caretaker government" led by ex-justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil commanded.
But Aujali said the US and other countries could accelerate Gaddafi’s exit by supporting Abdel-Jalil.
"He is a very honest man, a man with dignity," Aujali said. "I hope this caretaker government will get the support of Libyans and of the international community."
The State Department said it had no knowledge of Abdel-Jalil`s effort.