GENEVA – The U.S. began moving naval and air forces closer to Libya and declared on Monday that all options were open, including the use of warplanes to patrol the country's skies, to protect Libyans threatened by an increasingly isolated and defiant Moammar Gadhafi. The U.S. and Europe were freezing billions in Libya's foreign assets.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States was exploring the idea of a no-fly zone to prevent Gadhafi's government from bombing its citizens, and European leaders were discussing that as well.
Clinton welcomed fresh sanctions outlined by Europe to force the dictator to stop attacks on civilians and step down after 42 years of iron-fisted rule.
After meetings with other nations' foreign policy chiefs in Switzerland, Clinton said the U.S. was sending aid teams to help Libyan refugees. She sharpened the U.S. demand that Gadhafi step aside in the face of armed opposition now in control of large portions of the North African oil state.
"Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to govern, and it is time for him to go without further violence or delay," she said. "No option is off the table. That of course includes a no-fly zone," Clinton added, a reference to an effort to control the air over Libya.
Gadhafi, in an interview with ABC News, dismissed the idea of leaving.
The European Union issued travel bans and an asset freeze against senior Libyan officials, and ordered an arms embargo on the country. Germany went further, proposing a 60-day economic embargo to prevent Gadhafi from using oil and other revenues to repress his people.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron decided in a phone call Monday to seek an extraordinary meeting of the European Council so that the "EU adopts the needed measures" regarding Libya situation, the French president's office said.
In Washington, the Treasury Department said that at least $30 billion in Libyan assets had been frozen since President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on the country last week.
The $30 billion represented the largest amount ever frozen by a U.S. sanctions order, said David Cohen, Treasury's acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. He declined to provide details on how many U.S. financial institutions held the Libyan assets or how the money was divided between Gadhafi and his family and the country's sovereign wealth fund.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said it was moving naval and air forces in the region in case they were needed, but did not say what they might be used for.
"We have planners working various contingency plans and ... as part of that we are repositioning forces in the region to be able to provide options and flexibility," said Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman.
Describing the Pentagon as in "preparing and planning mode," Lapan said the U.S. military was not involved in planned French humanitarian flights and that no decision had been made on whether to set up a no-fly zone. He declined to say whether the U.S. had flown surveillance and intelligence flights over Libya.
The U.S. has a regular military presence in the Mediterranean Sea, two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf area and a wide range of surveillance equipment available for use in the region. Without specific information about what assets were being moved and where, it was impossible to tell whether the U.S. threat had teeth.
Clinton said a flight ban was under active consideration by the U.S. and its allies, but such action seemed unlikely for now. Senior U.S. officials said the issue was not even discussed during Clinton's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose OK would be important. Lavrov dismissed the idea in public remarks.
Clinton said the U.S. would send special aid teams to Libya's borders with Egypt and Tunisia, where increasingly desperate crowds were fleeing a potential civil war. She said the U.S. had pledged $10 million to help refugees.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the European measures, including a freeze on Libyan assets, aim to reinforce U.N. Security Council sanctions approved over the weekend.
"The massive violence against peaceful demonstrators shocks our conscience. It should also spring us into action," Ashton told the Human Rights Council.
The EU also embargoed any equipment that could be "used for internal repression," Ashton said. She said creating a no-fly zone over Libya would involve more complex negotiations.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told his nation's lawmakers Monday he was working with allies on a plan to establish a military no-fly zone over Libya and "we do not in any way rule out the use of military assets" to deal with Gadhafi's embattled government.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called Libya "a crisis at our doorstep" that is of great concern — but noted the U.N. resolution excluded the use of armed forces and didn't mention a no-fly zone.
"It is outrageous what the Libyan dictatorship is doing against its own people," he said. "The framework here and now is, and should be, the resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council."
The EU action was significant because Europe has much more leverage over Libya than the United States — 85 percent of Libyan oil goes to Europe, and Gadhafi and his family are thought to have significant assets in Britain, Switzerland and Italy. Switzerland and Britain already have frozen Libyan assets.
Even before Ashton announced the new sanctions, France pledged to send two planes with humanitarian aid to Libya's opposition stronghold of Benghazi while Germany also mulled a two-month cutoff of oil payments. This came after days of increasing concern about the hundreds, and potentially thousands, of deaths.
Meanwhile, Gadhafi laughed when asked during an interview with ABC News whether he would heed Clinton's call to step down. Gadhafi invited the United Nations and any other organization to come to Libya and do a "factfinding mission" and questioned how they could freeze assets, impose sanctions and implement a travel ban based purely on media reports, ABC said.
Gadhafi told interviewer Christiane Amanpour that he would not leave Libya, and he denied using any force against his people.
In Paris, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said many more discussions were needed before the United Nations would support a no-fly zone over Libya, and he questioned whether NATO should get involved in a civil war in a North African country. The NATO chief has rejected intervening in Libya.
Libya's oil chief said production was down 50 percent due to foreign oil workers fleeing the uprising, but the head of the National Oil Co. told The Associated Press on Monday that Libya's oil installations were protected and safe, disputing remarks by the EU energy commissioner who said Gadhafi had lost control of major fields.
The EU gets almost 5 percent of its fuel from Libya, which has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa. In 2009, the EU imported $27.5 billion in fuel from Libya — accounting for 85 percent of all the $32 billion in fuel that Libya exported that year, according to World Trade Organization figures.
Gadhafi's government has been in power since 1969, but Clinton told the U.N.'s Human Rights Council that he and his allies have "lost the legitimacy to govern" by reportedly executing soldiers who refused to turn their guns on civilians and other severe human rights abuses. The council itself has recommended suspending Libya as a member.
Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said the EU should consider a total ban on payments to Libya, including for oil deliveries. He said Germany wanted a 60-day ban to prevent Gadhafi and his family from receiving any fresh funds.
Since the U.N. Security Council voted Saturday to impose new penalties against Libya, Clinton said the United States was "reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize," mostly in eastern Libya.
In response Monday, Libya's state-run news agency, JANA, quoted a foreign ministry official as saying that Clinton's comments were "a flagrant intervention in Libya's internal affairs and ... of the United Nations charter."
British and German military planes swooped into Libya's desert over the weekend, rescuing hundreds of oil workers and civilians stranded at remote sites. The military missions signaled the readiness of Western nations to disregard Libya's territorial integrity when it comes to the safety of their citizens.
Matthew Lee reported from Washington. AP writers Pauline Jelinek in Washington, Frank Jordans in Geneva, Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton in Paris, Raf Casert in Brussels, Danica Kirka and Raphael G. Satter in London, Geir Moulson in Berlin, and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.