published Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

US, EU threaten Libya with sanctions

  • photo
    A man holds up a sign during a demonstration calling for the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday Feb. 20, 2011. The crackdown of anti-government protests in Libya continued Sunday as, according to witnesses Libyan forces fired machine-guns at mourners marching in a funeral for anti-government protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

ANGELA DOLAND, Associated Press

PARIS — The United States and the European Union vowed Wednesday to consider sanctions against Libya for Moammar Gadhafi's fierce crackdown on protesters, with the EU calling the attacks possible "crimes against humanity."

"The continuing brutal and bloody repression against the Libyan civilian population is revolting," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement Wednesday, raising the possibility of cutting off all economic and business ties between the EU and Libya. "The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights."

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney also condemned the attacks.

"The violence is abhorrent, it is completely unacceptable and the bloodshed must stop," Carney said.

The European Union has faced criticism for an initially cautious, measured response to the bloodshed in Libya and in other Arab countries swept up in a wave of popular protests against authoritarian regimes. The bloc's 27 members have disagreed on how hard-hitting a tone to take against Libya, their neighbor across the Mediterranean and a major supplier of their oil.

But by Wednesday, momentum seemed to be building toward a tougher response to Gadhafi, who has vowed to fight to his "last drop of blood."

"A political leader who has decided to bomb his own citizens has lost all legitimacy to continue leading his country," Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez said.

After a meeting of EU ambassadors, the bloc did not announce sanctions, but EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU stood "ready to take further measures" beyond suspending talks on a bilateral deal.

The precise measures were still being negotiated, a senior EU official said, adding that there were up to 10,000 EU citizens in Libya, sparking worries about getting them out of the North African country safely. The official requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

EU President Herman Van Rompuy said Libya has committed "horrible crimes that are unacceptable and must not remain without consequences."

The U.N.'s top human rights official said a no-fly zone could be imposed over Libya to protect civilians from attacks by government aircraft. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Wednesday if unconfirmed reports of aerial attacks against civilians turned out to be true, "I think there's an immediate need for that level of protection."

The comments came after the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday demanded the violence in Libya stop immediately and Peru suspended diplomatic relations with Libya.

Some Libyan diplomats abroad have distanced themselves from Gadhafi. The embassies in Vienna, in Prague and in Bratislava, Slovakia, all condemned the violence. "Long live free Libya!" said a statement from the Libyan embassy in the Czech capital.

Protesters in Rome charged past police lines Wednesday to scale the Libyan embassy fence, tear down the country's flag and burn it. About 150 people, nearly all Arabic-speakers, then hoisted Libya's old flag from the monarchy era before Gadhafi's rule.

Ahead of Friday's emergency meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Libya, the EU pushed for an independent U.N.-led probe into the killing of protesters and other human rights abuses allegedly committed by Libyan security forces.

An EU draft resolution said the bloc "strongly condemns the recent extremely grave human rights violations committed in Libya, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of peaceful demonstrators, which if widespread and systematic, may amount to crimes against humanity."

Sarkozy proposed sanctions including barring those implicated in the crackdown from the EU and monitoring their financial transactions. He also wants to examine the possibility of suspending economic, commercial and financial relations with Libya.

Sarkozy's proposal was a sharp turnaround from 2007, when he hosted Gadhafi for a pomp-filled visit to Paris, and the two countries agreed on deals for arms and nuclear reactors worth billions of euros (dollars) — many of which never materialized.

Germany's foreign minister said sanctions would be "inevitable" if the Libyan regime continues to put down protests so violently.

"If this violence continues, everyone in Europe will know that this cannot go unanswered," said Guido Westerwelle. "I cannot imagine that, given these terrible pictures, these terrible events in our immediate neighborhood, any other policy is possible in Europe."

In 2009, Libya's major export customers were European: Italy received about 38 percent of its exports, Germany had 10 percent, and France and Spain had about 8 percent each, according to the CIA World Factbook.

That same year, Libya received nearly 19 percent of its total imports from Italy, followed by China at 10 percent, and Germany and Turkey at about 10 percent, the CIA reported. France accounted for less than 6 percent.

Libya's crackdown on protesters has killed nearly 300 people, according to a partial count by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he stressed that information about casualties was incomplete.

The crisis has sent oil prices soaring to the highest level in more than two years. On Wednesday, heavy gunfire broke out in Tripoli as forces loyal to Gadhafi tightened their grip on the capital while anti-government protesters claimed control of many cities elsewhere.

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