Residents of Tripoli cowered in their homes on Sunday as US President Barack Obama moved to avert a bloody battle for the Libyan capital by urging a defiant Moamer Kadhafi to step down “now.”
The UN Security Council imposed a travel and assets ban on Kadhafi’s regime and, for the first time unanimously, ordered an investigation into possible crimes against humanity by the Libyan strongman.
Western governmments closed embassies and pulled out diplomatic staff as Britain announced it had sent in military aircraft to evacuate more than 150 nationals stranded in desert camps amid growing criticism of the evacuation effort.
Libya’s former justice minister announced he was forming a transitional government to replace Kadhafi’s crumbling regime, which now controls only some western areas around the capital and a few longtime bastions in the arid south, reporters and witnesses say.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil said the new administration would include commanders of the regular army, much of which has defected to the opposition, and would pave the way for free and fair elections in three months’ time.
“Our national government has military and civilian personalities. It will lead for no more than three months, and then there will be fair elections and the people will choose their leader,” Abdel Jalil told reporters in the eastern town of Al-Baida, an opposition stronghold.
It was not immediately clear whether other cities that liberated themselves had coordinated the move with Abdel Jalil, who resigned from Kadhafi’s government on Monday in protest at the increasingly deadly crackdown on opposition to the four-decade-old regime.
In Washington, Obama said Kadhafi needs to “leave now,” having lost the legitimacy to rule.
It was the US president’s most direct demand yet that Kadhafi step down and was coordinated in a telephone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the White House said.
Hours later, the UN Security Council voted to order an investigation into possible crimes against humanity by the Libyan regime, and impose an arms embargo, and travel bans and asset freezes targeting Kadhafi and his family and inner circle.
The resolution cited “gross and systematic violation of human rights, including the repression of peaceful demonstrators” and incitement to hostility and violence “from the highest levels of the Libyan government.”
The UN resolution stopped short of demanding Kadhafi’s removal from power, something that Obama had also refrained from doing while US citizens were being evacuated from Libya.
The UN says that more than 1,000 people have been killed in the crackdown by Kadhafi loyalists.
The Security Council said it was referring the bloodshed to the International Criminal Court because “the widespread and systematic attacks currently taking place (in Libya) against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity.”
Rebels have taken control of most of eastern Libya and were closing in on the capital, where Kadhafi loyalists have been carrying out orders to shoot on sight, witnesses said.
Kadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, once regarded as a reformist possible heir, told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television that the crisis had “opened the doors to a civil war.”
In the capital, tanks and all-terrain vehicles driven by regime partisans were patrolling the almost deserted streets, a resident told AFP.
Amid growing shortages in the import-dependent, oil-producing North African nation, people had joined long queues for bread and petrol on Saturday.
In Libya’s third city Misrata, which fell to the opposition in deadly clashes over the past few days, helicopter-borne regime mercenaries fired on mourners at a funeral, a witness told AFP.
Heavy weapons fire was heard in the background as the witness said by telephone that the hired men shot at mourners who were about to enter a mosque. The mercenaries also fired on a building housing an opposition radio station. It was unclear if there were casualties.
Britain announced that it had pulled its diplomatic staff out of Tripoli and closed its embassy. Staff were evacuated on the last government-chartered flight from the capital, it said.
The United States and Canada have also closed their embassies, and Paris suspended operations at the French embassy.
Two British C130 Hercules military transport aircraft swooped into the remote the desert to evacuate 150 civilians stranded in the country’s southern oilfields, Defence Minister Liam Fox said.
Other countries also scrambled to get their citizens out amid what those able to get out described as “hellish” scenes in a nation long made wealthy by its large oil reserves.
Libya’s foreign legion of domestic helpers, construction workers and oil executives were among thousands still scrambling to evacuate by air, land and sea.
A British warship and a Chinese-chartered ferry docked in Malta with 2,500 evacuees from Libya’s vast multinational workforce.
Many more were fleeing by land. More than 38,000 people have fled through the Ras Jedir crossing on Libya’s western, Tunisian border alone, an official there told AFP.
The UN World Food Programme warned on Friday that the food distribution system was “at risk of collapsing” in a mainly desert nation which is heavily dependent on imports.
In his interview with Al-Arabiya, Kadhafi’s son said protesters were being manipulated in a situation which had “opened the doors to civil war.”
“Our Arab brothers pay monthly salaries to journalists and tell them to write and incite against Libya,” Seif al-Islam told the channel.