- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States said Wednesday it was considering sanctions and other means to pressure Moammar Gadhafi’s regime to halt attacks against Libyans as violent clashes spread throughout the country. President Obama planned to speak publicly about the situation for the first time later Wednesday or Thursday.

“The violence is abhorrent, it is completely unacceptable and the bloodshed must stop,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Mr. Carney said that “a lot of options are under review — sanctions, other options” to end the fighting in the North African country, where protesters are demanding an end to Col. Gadhafi’s 42-year reign but facing a fierce and bloody crackdown.

Mr. Obama had stayed silent in public as violence overtook Libya as the U.S. focused on getting U.S. citizens out of the country. Evacuations finally began Wednesday.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. would ask other countries to get them to safety. He spoke as American and other non-Libyan passengers were boarding a ferry to leave Tripoli for the Mediterranean island of Malta.

Mr. Crowley said Libyan authorities were helping in the process and checking passports.

Militiamen loyal to Col. Gadhafi clamped down Wednesday in Tripoli while the rebellion controlling other parts of the country claimed new gains. Hundreds have been killed as militiamen loyal to Col. Gahdhafi roam the streets firing at will.

The White House stopped short of directly criticizing the unpredictable Col. Gadhafi and did not call for his ouster. As it did with Egypt, the U.S. is walking a fine line given the uncertainty ahead in Libya, though America’s strong alliance with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave the U.S. a more pointed stake there.

Mr. Obama never directly called for Mr. Mubarak’s ouster before an uprising forced his exit on Feb. 11. For now the White House appears to be adopting the same stance in Libya although the U.S. ties with Col. Gadhafi are far more tenuous.

“This is not about individual leaders. It’s not about personalities,” Mr. Carney said when asked Wednesday if Mr. Obama believes Col. Gadhafi should continue to lead Libya. He said what was important that people’s voices are heard.

Unease over the safety of U.S. citizens intensified after attempts to get some out on Monday and Tuesday were unsuccessful. Late Tuesday, the State Department announced that American citizens would be evacuated by ferry.

The mercurial Col. Gadhafi — once termed the “mad dog of the Middle East” by President Ronald Reagan — has long flummoxed U.S. officials. He is notoriously unpredictable and has been known to fly into rages at real or perceived slights.

The Obama administration did not outline any specific steps to coerce or punish the Libyan regime, with which the U.S. has built a wary partnership after years of branding Col. Gadhafi a terrorist sponsor. After decades of hostility, the U.S. and Libya normalized ties during President George W. Bush’s presidency after Col. Gadhafi renounced terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. But relations have been far from fully cordial.

U.S. officials said Washington would join other nations to address Libyan behavior at the U.N. Security Council. They renewed calls for Col. Gadhafi’s government to talk with opponents, and cast the political unrest there as part of a regional uprising against political and economic stagnation that must be addressed by the Arab governments of the Middle East and North Africa.

Col. Gadhafi delivered a defiant speech on national television Tuesday in which he vowed he will not step aside. He said he would die a martyr’s death fighting those rebelling against him. The address was filled with references to his standing up to the United States and other world powers and threats to execute protesters.

In addition to the tone, the speech unnerved U.S. officials because it was delivered in front of the rubble of the Tripoli compound that the U.S. bombed in 1986, killing Col. Gadhafi’s young daughter. As he spoke state-run television repeatedly showed a courtyard statue of a clenched fist crushing a U.S. fighter jet.

Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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