BENGHAZI, Libya – Moammar Gadhafi came under intensified international pressure Monday to halt attacks on anti-regime protesters, with the Pentagon dispatching ships and aircraft to the Mediterranean Sea and the Treasury Department freezing a record $30 billion in assets tied to the embattled dictator and his family.
Forces loyal to Gadhafi launched counterattacks on cities held by rebels in Libya, but apparently failed to dislodge them from the key western city of Zawiyah, 50 miles from the capital, Tripoli. There were reports that Gadhafi’s government had launched new airstrikes against its opponents.
As new violence flared, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton demanded that the Libyan leader leave. “It is time for Gadhafi to go – now, without further violence or delay,” she said at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
But Gadhafi, in an interview with three Western news organizations, laughingly dismissed the idea of ceding power, increasing the likelihood of a long, bloody battle for oil-rich Libya’s future.
“How can one believe this statement when he (Gadhafi) says there is absolutely no demonstrations whatsoever?” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers in Washington. “He has declared war on his own people and so he lost totally his legitimacy.”
The U.N. has “reports and information (that) suggest quite credible figures of killings in the thousands” of protesters by Gadhafi militiamen and African mercenaries since the insurrection erupted nearly two weeks ago, said Ban, who discussed the crisis earlier in the day with President Barack Obama.
Pentagon spokesmen didn’t detail the purpose of the U.S. ship and aircraft movements, but the moves didn’t appear to signal direct U.S. military intervention in Libya. Among the ships being sent, reports said, is the USS Kearsarge, which carries nearly 2,000 Marines and dozens of helicopters.
“We have planners working and various contingency plans, and I think it’s safe to say as part of that we’re repositioning forces to be able to provide for that flexibility once decisions are made,” said Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
In Geneva, Clinton suggested the mission was primarily humanitarian.
“We do believe that there will be the need for support for humanitarian intervention. We also know that there will probably, unfortunately, be the need for rescue missions” because of the large numbers of people fleeing Libya and neighboring Tunisia, she said. “But there is not any pending military action involving U.S. naval vessels.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Monday that he won’t condemn Gadhafi, and he warned that the United States is preparing an invasion of the North African country to seize control of its oil reserves.
“A campaign of lies is being spun together regarding Libya,” said Chavez. “I’d be a coward to condemn someone who has been my friend.”
In Benghazi, now outside of Gadhafi’s control, residents strongly oppose outside military intervention in what they consider a purely Libyan revolution.
“No foreign intervention. We don’t want to be like Iraq,” said Ahmed Sukaya Pobaee, a lieutenant in the new anti-Gadhafi army.
The State Department said it’s dispatching aid teams to Libya’s refugee-choked borders with Egypt and Tunisia.
The U.N. is stockpiling medicines and foods to rush into Libya on the eastern border with Egypt, Ban said, but the Gadhafi regime is refusing to allow the organization into Tripoli to do the same there. “To Tripoli, we have a very serious problem with access because they are showing hostility to the U.N. staff,” he said.
There are also an estimated 100,000 foreigners, mostly Egyptians and Tunisians, trying to leave the country through its borders with Egypt and Tunisia, and a looming humanitarian crisis inside Libya, Ban said.
On the financial front, David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said at least $30 billion in assets belonging to Gadhafi and his family, and to Libya’s central bank, had been frozen.
“This is the largest blocking under any sanctions program ever,” Cohen said, adding that other individuals may be added to the list.
The European Union also imposed new sanctions on Gadhafi’s regime Monday, banning weapons sales and freezing the assets of senior Libyan officials.
Gadhafi, facing an uprising that threatens to end his 42 years of control over Libya, was launching counterattacks at several locations controlled by the rebels, residents reached by phone said. The main flashpoints appeared to be the cities of Zawiyah and Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city, to the east of Tripoli.
Reports that Gadhafi had bombed his opponents from the air were likely to intensify calls in the U.S. and Europe of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya’s airspace.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said a no-fly zone is being considered “actively and seriously,” but added that a decision on U.S. or NATO military assistance to the anti-Gadhafi forces is premature because it’s “unclear at this point who will emerge as the critical opposition elements.”