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Libya faces new sanctions from Europe, US

By Bradley Klapper and Robert Burns
Associated Press / March 11, 2011

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WASHINGTON — President Obama’s administration cut ties with Libya’s remaining representatives in the United States yesterday, and France became the first nation to recognize Moammar Khadafy’s opponents, adding diplomatic pressure on the Libyan government even as trans-Atlantic leaders stepped back from imminent military intervention.

In a day of intense discussions on two continents, the European Union added new sanctions on Libyan companies, and Germany froze billions of dollars in Libyan government assets.

The United States and NATO allies agreed to develop contingency plans for air patrols over Libya to protect civilians, but most nations hope those are never used.

“We all agreed that NATO will only act if there is demonstrable need, a sound legal basis, and strong regional support,’’ Defense Secretary Robert Gates said following discussions at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

The military alliance will continue examining “all military options,’’ including protective aerial cover, Gates said. “But that’s the extent of it.’’

In Washington, national security adviser Tom Donilon said the United States soon will send disaster assistance relief teams into the eastern part of the country. Those would be the first American personnel to enter Libya since the US Embassy was closed last month.

“They are not going in — in any way, shape, or form — as military operations,’’ Donilon said. “It can in no way be seen as military intervention.’’

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of tougher action to force Khadafy to leave after 42 years in power. But she cautioned that a go-it-alone approach could have unforeseeable and devastating consequences.

The United States wants international backing for anything beyond modest humanitarian help for Libyans caught in violence that could soon slide into civil war, even if no plans for military intervention ever come to pass.

Clinton acknowledged that the administration was caught in a bind with Libya after four decades of stop-and-go relations and in light of the deep skepticism over US motives in the Middle East.

“We can stand on the sidelines and hope and pray for the best; we can get so involved that we are accused of interfering, going after oil, trying to occupy another Islamic country,’’ Clinton said.

“Or we can try to do what we are doing, which is, be smart about how we offer assistance, how we respond, how we bring the international community along. And that’s the toughest of the options, but that’s what we’re trying to do,’’ she said.

Speaking at a House budget hearing, Clinton announced that Washington was suspending relations with Libya’s embassy to the United States, though the move falls short of severing diplomatic relations. She said she would meet with Libyan opposition figures when she travels to Egypt and Tunisia next week, marking the highest level contact between the United States and anti-Khadafy elements controlling most of the country’s east.

Clinton will be the highest-ranking US representative to visit those nations since political uprisings that toppled autocrats who were longtime US allies earlier this year. The unrest spread, including to Libya, where it has produced the most sustained violence and the greatest risk of civil war. The Libyan violence also has profound economic consequences because Libya is a major oil producer.

The diplomatic push came as Libyan government forces drove hundreds of the rebels from a strategic oil port with a withering rain of rockets and tank shells yesterday, expanding Khadafy’s control as Western nations scrambled to devise a unified strategy to stop him.

Meanwhile, France became the first major power to say it plans to exchange ambassadors with the Libyan rebels’ makeshift government, after President Nicolas Sarkozy met with representatives of the group.

While discussions continued on a European proposal at the United Nations for authorization of a no-fly zone, the Obama administration voiced its strongest words of caution.

Part of the US hesitation reflects an acknowledgement that any such zone would require an assault on Libyan air defenses, a step tantamount to war. American officials also are worried about shouldering the costs and risks involved with the operation.

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