President Obama on Wednesday condemned Moammar Kadafi's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Libya, saying he had ordered his administration to prepare "a full range of options" to handle the crisis as the death toll rose into the hundreds.
Although Obama described the violence in Libya as "outrageous" and "unacceptable," he did not specify any potential actions against Kadafi and did not call on him to resign. A senior administration official said the White House does not want to give Kadafi a chance to cast himself as a patriot resisting American pressure.
Until now, U.S. officials had avoided direct statements against the regime, partly over concern that Americans in Libya could face reprisals or be taken hostage, officials said. Obama's statement came after a ferry arrived in Tripoli to evacuate hundreds of U.S. citizens, including a few dozen diplomats.
At the United Nations, diplomats said they too were hesitant to act against Kadafi while their citizens were still in the country.
"Until we see greater signals that foreign nationals are being allowed to leave, or that those who wish to leave are having their departures facilitated, rather than impeded, there will be a lot of caution about specific coercive measures," one diplomat said.
Their statements reflected growing anxiety in the West about the spreading violence and the possible implosion of a country that is a key energy source for Europe and other world markets.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the European Union to consider cutting all economic ties to Libya and weigh war crimes charges against officials involved in the killing of Libyan citizens.
Italy's foreign minister was quoted by news services as saying the number of dead may be as high as 1,000 people. Italy has long and deep connections with Libya.
"This is not simply a concern of the United States," Obama said. "The entire world is watching."
U.S. officials privately downplayed their ability to force a swift resolution and said they hoped to work with allies to develop a package of multilateral economic sanctions, possibly including a freeze on Kadafi's personal holdings.
Obama said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would attend a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting Monday in Geneva to try to coordinate strategy with other nations.
Yet diplomats acknowledged that they have little leverage with an entrenched and isolated strongman who has vowed to cling to power, noting that military options could harden Kadafi's stand.
Economic sanctions take time to have an effect, and, even then, the results of any American actions could be limited. U.S. exports to Libya amounted to only $665 million last year. But sanctions that include European nations, which have a larger economic stake in Libya, could sting, diplomats said.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the situation "unpredictable" and said it could go "in any number of directions, many of them dangerous."
Ban also acknowledged that a 40-minute phone conversation with Kadafi had no effect on the Libyan leader.
"That is why I have strongly condemned, again and again, what he has done," Ban told reporters. "After such long and extensive discussions and after my strong urging and even appealing [to him], he has not heeded it. This is not acceptable."
Ban would not say if he would call on Kadafi to resign or whether he would support sanctions, a no-fly zone or measures beyond condemnations of the violence. He said he was sure "the international community is considering a broad range of options."
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay suggested Wednesday that a no-fly zone over Libya might be needed in light of reports of aerial attacks against civilians, but other officials downplayed that possibility.
A senior U.S. military officer said he was unaware of any formal order from the White House to plan for a such an operation.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, who commanded the U.S. no-fly zone over northern Iraq in the late 1990s, warned that such an operation should not be undertaken unless the White House and the Pentagon first understood the risks and decided on goals. "It's very possible," Deptula said of a U.S.-led operation over Libyan air space. "But the question is, to what end?"
He noted that the U.S. and its allies would first have to gain control of Libyan air space, which might require combat against the Libyan air force. At least some U.S. combat aircraft deployed in Afghanistan and in air bases across the Persian Gulf probably would have to be reassigned.
Nor has the administration made any public announcement about deploying U.S. Navy vessels off the Libyan coast.
"They don't want any pictures of ships with American flags near Libya," a Pentagon official said.
The closest U.S. aircraft carrier, Enterprise, left the Mediterranean last week and is now in the Indian Ocean. The Navy's 6th Fleet has only eight ships in the Mediterranean. There are 54 in the Pacific and 43 in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, according to the Navy.
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas in Washington and Tina Susman in New York contributed to this report.