- Associated Press - Sunday, February 27, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration stands ready to offer “any type of assistance” to Libyans seeking to oust Moammar Gadhafi, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday, adding a warning to other African nations not to let mercenaries go to the aid of the longtime dictator.

Mrs. Clinton made no mention of any U.S. military assistance in her remarks to reporters before flying to Geneva for talks with diplomats from Russia, the European Union and other powers eager to present a united anti-Gadhafi front.

Shortly before she left, two senators urged the administration to help arm a provisional government in Libya, where Col. Gadhafi is in the midst of the desperate and increasingly violent bid to retain power.

Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent, also called for the United States and its allies to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the military from again firing on civilian protesters from the air.

The White House had no immediate comment on their recommendations.

Mrs. Clinton spoke to reporters one day after President Obama branded Col. Gadhafi an illegitimate ruler who must leave power immediately.

“We want him to leave and we want him to end his regime and call off the mercenaries and those troops that remain loyal to him,” she said. “How he manages that is obviously up to him and to his family.”

The U.N. Security Council voted last Saturday to impose new penalties against the Gadhafi government, in power since 1969 in the oil-rich nation along Africa’s Mediterranean coast.

“We are just at the beginning of what will follow Gadhafi. … But we’ve been reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east and as the revolution moves westward there as well,” Mrs. Clinton said. “I think it’s way too soon to tell how this is going to play out, but we’re going to be ready and prepared to offer any kind of assistance that anyone wishes to have from the United States.”

Efforts are under way to form a provisional government in the eastern part of the country, where the rebellion began at midmonth.

The United States, Mrs. Clinton said, is threatening more measures against Col. Gadhafi’s government but did not say what they were or when they might be announced.

Addressing the rulers of unnamed neighboring countries, she said: “You must stop mercenaries; you must stop those who may be going to Libya either at the behest or opportunistically to engage in violence or other criminal acts. And we will be working closely with those neighboring countries to ensure that they do so.”

The African fighters that Col. Gadhafi allegedly is using against protesters come from several nations.

Mrs. Clinton’s remarks did not go as far as those of Mr. McCain or Mr. Lieberman.

“Libyan pilots aren’t going to fly if there is a no-fly zone, and we could get air assets there to ensure it,” Mr. McCain said. But he added, “I’m not ready to use ground forces or further intervention than that.”

He said the United States should “recognize some provisional government that they are trying to set already up in the eastern part of Libya, help them with material assistance, make sure that every one of the mercenaries know that any acts they commit they will find themselves in front a war crimes tribunal. Get tough.”

Mr. Lieberman spoke in similar terms, urging “tangible support, (a) no-fly zone, recognition of the revolutionary government, the citizens government and support for them with both humanitarian assistance, and I would provide them with arms.”

He likened the situation in Libya to the events in the Balkans in the 1990s, when he said the U.S. “intervened to stop a genocide against Bosnians. And the first we did was to provide them the arms to defend themselves. That’s what I think we ought to do in Libya.”

Mr. McCain and Mr. Lieberman spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union” from Egypt, where a largely peaceful popular uprising recently toppled President Hosni Mubarak from power after a reign of nearly three decades.

It was one of numerous rebellions across North Africa and the Middle East in recent months, all of them far less violent than the events in Libya, where Col. Gadhafi has used his military and foreign mercenaries to try to crush a revolt and has threatened to begin arming Libyans who support his rule.

The rebellion began Feb. 15 in Benghazi, where a member of the city council said on Sunday that an ex-justice minister was appointed to lead a provisional government for cities under rebel control.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Lieberman also said Obama was slow to react to Col. Gadhafi’s brutal response to the protests. The administration has said the president did not want to risk any attack on Americans were trying to leave the country and waited until a ferry loaded with evacuees reached Malta after spending two days in the harbor at Tripoli, the capital, because of bad weather.

“The British prime minister and the French president and others were not hesitant, and they have citizens in that country,” said Mr. McCain, who also appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mr. Lieberman said he understood why the administration hesitated, but he added, “I wish we had spoken out much more clearly and early against the Gadhafi regime.”