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2 US warships move closer to Libya via Suez Canal

Two U.S. warships have passed through the Suez Canal on their way to the Mediterranean Sea and closer to Libyan shores after orders from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Egyptian officials said Wednesday.

The amphibious assault ships USS Kearsarge and USS Ponce entered the canal earlier in the day from the Red Sea. The officials said the USS Kearsarge is carrying 42 helicopters.

The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.

Gates said he ordered two Navy amphibious warships into the Mediterranean, along with an extra 400 Marines, in case they are needed to evacuate civilians or provide humanitarian relief.

And while he did not rule out other options, such as providing air cover for Libyan rebels, he made clear he has little enthusiasm for direct military intervention.

The Obama administration is weighing its military options for Libya, conscious that it may need to flex U.S. muscle to help usher Moammar Gadhafi out of power but fearful of provoking even deadlier violence from a regime that has shown little restraint in attacking its own people.