WASHINGTON — The Obama administration threw its weight Thursday behind a European effort to expel Libya from the United Nations' top human rights body and said it was readying a larger sanctions package against Muammar Gaddafi's regime that it will take up with allies in the coming days.
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US President Barack Obama was consulting with the leaders of Britain and France, while officials said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would help coordinate the larger international strategy to stop the violence in Libya at a meeting of foreign policy chiefs next week in Switzerland.
As an initial punishment for Libya's violent attacks on protesters, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States is backing a European proposal for the UN Human Rights Council to recommend Libya's expulsion.
Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss administration planning also said the US would support efforts to establish a UN-led probe into "gross and systematic violations of human rights by the Libyan authorities."
While those measures might seem tame, they were expected to be followed soon by tougher measures aimed at pressuring the unpredictable Gaddafi to end the violence that has wracked much of his country.
The US was being forced to temper its tone because hundreds of Americans remained stuck in the country, and many were relying on the good will and cooperation of Gaddafi's government for their safety and planned evacuation.
Crowley said 167 Americans — 40 nonessential US Embassy personnel and their family members, and 127 private US citizens — were waiting to be evacuated by ferry from Libya. The ferry remained docked in the capital of Tripoli because of high seas. There are also 118 foreigners on board, and the boat was not expected to leave until Friday.
"These people have been on board the ship for now well over 24 hours," Crowley said. "I'm sure they're uncomfortable. They slept last night on the ship."
Crowley said the US had security aboard the vessel and that Libyan officials were securing the port area. He sidestepped a reporter's question whether the US was fearful of a hostage situation arising, and praised Libya for cooperating with the US on the planned ferry voyage to Malta.
Members of the 47-nation rights council were debating the resolution Thursday in Geneva, ahead of an emergency session Friday. Kicking out Libya would require two-thirds approval of all the 192 countries in the United Nations.
"The Libyan government has violated the rights of its people," Crowley told reporters at the State Department. "Taking this step continues the increased isolation that the Libyan government is facing."
Hundreds are believed to have been killed in Libya in recent days, and Gaddafi's regime appears to have lost control of large parts of the country. Gaddafi has ruled the country for 42 years and has offered the most violent resistance to the wave of protests that have spread through the Arab countries, chasing leaders from power in Libya's neighbors Egypt and Tunisia.
It was unclear what the larger sanctions package might include, although asset freezes and travel bans on senior Libyan officials are possibilities.
"There are actions that are being teed up within our government," Crowley said. "We expect to take action in the coming days, but it takes time." He said the US also wants to ensure that the sanctions chosen are "most likely to be successful in putting pressure on the Libyan government to respect the rights and actions of their people."
Another option could be to ban the sale of US military equipment, even if that would be largely symbolic at this point.
The US has given private arms firms licenses to sell the Gaddafi regime materiel ranging from explosives and incendiary agents to aircraft parts and targeting equipment in recent years.
The Obama administration also warned Thursday of a Libyan crackdown on foreign journalists to stifle news of the regime's violent assaults on protesters.
In meetings called by the Libyan government to specifically discuss news reporters, the State Department said the Libyan officials told US diplomats that they would consider unregistered journalists as al-Qaida collaborators subject to immediate arrest.
"Be advised, entering Libya to report on the events unfolding there is additionally hazardous with the government labeling unauthorized media as terrorist collaborators and claiming they will be arrested if caught," the department said in a notice to news organizations.
The Libyan officials told the US diplomats that some journalists from CNN, BBC Arabic and Al Arabiya television would be allowed into the country to cover the situation. But the officials said journalists working independently and not in government-approved teams will be prosecuted on immigration charges, according to the department.
The warning comes as the Libyan government appears to have lost control of much of the eastern part of the nation, where some reporters are crossing the border from Egypt.
The violence continued Thursday as army units and militiamen loyal to Gaddafi struck back against rebellious Libyans in cities close to the capital, attacking a mosque where some were protesting against the government. Medical officials said 15 people were killed in the clashes.
In a rambling phone call to state TV, Gaddafi accused al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden of being behind the uprising.
Crowley said the United States has not pursued any conversations with Gaddafi himself. But he confirmed that US officials were discussing the situation with Libyan government counterparts at various levels and messages from the Libyan leader were being passed.
Asked whether the US believed Gaddafi to be a "rational actor," Crowley demurred. "Muammar Gaddafi is the leader of Libya," he said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama's calls to British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were part of a strategy to seek a concerted and broad international effort to pressure the Libyan government. They come as the UN Security Council agreed to consider further options against Gaddafi's regime, including sanctions.
The White House said Obama and the leaders of Britain, France and Italy,
which has close ties to Libya, a one-time Italian colony, affirmed
their support for the rights of the Libyan people and discussed options
"to hold the Libyan government accountable for its actions, as well as
planning for humanitarian assistance."
A French government statement said Obama and Sarkozy demanded "an
immediate halt to the use of force against the civilian population."