The U.S. announced plans to evacuate its citizens from Libya after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said their safety was the “highest priority” during a violent crackdown on protesters in the country, which holds Africa’s largest oil reserves.
The U.S. embassy in Tripoli announced yesterday that a government-chartered ferry would take American citizens from the Libyan capital to Malta. The statement said people would be taken on a first-come, first-served basis although people with severe medical conditions would get priority.
The United Nations Security Council and European allies yesterday joined the U.S. in condemning Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s attacks on protesters that New York-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch has said killed almost 300. While deploring the bloodshed, U.S. officials said they must focus first on the safety of embassy personnel.
“Now, as always, the safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority,” Clinton told reporters at the State Department in Washington. “As we gain a greater understanding of what actually is happening,” she said, the U.S. “will take appropriate steps in line with our policies, our values and our laws. But we’re going to have to work in concert with the international community.”
Libya’s unrest has driven oil prices to the highest level in more than two years on concern it may disrupt production. Crude for March delivery rose as much as 9.6 percent to $94.49 a barrel before paring gains to $93.57.
Trip by Feltman
Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for near Eastern affairs, is traveling to Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to “our longstanding partnerships in the region as well as universal human rights,” a department statement said.
Former administration officials said fear for the safety of U.S. personnel in Tripoli may be delaying efforts by President Barack Obama to build international support for Qaddafi’s departure or sanctions against his government. The U.S. has scant influence to persuade Qaddafi to stop killing protesters inspired by the toppling of autocratic leaders in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, analysts said.
The White House lost what leverage it might have had over Qaddafi with the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, perhaps the only person to whom Qaddafi listened, said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and former assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.
‘Stuck on the Sidelines’
“We really are stuck on the sidelines,” Walker, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said in an interview. “For so long, we had no relations with the Libyans. The only person with real influence was Mubarak, and we’ve lost that tool.”
Unlike Mubarak, who retreated to a palace in the Red Sea city of Sharm el-Sheikh when he resigned this month, Qaddafi is unlikely to cede power, said David Schenker, a former senior Pentagon adviser on the Arab world.
Qaddafi “doesn’t strike me as a guy who wants to quietly take his billions of dollars and leave the world stage,” said Schenker, director of the program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We can tilt the balance in favor of the Libyan people if the Security Council votes for a no-fly zone and prevents further massacres.”
While condemning violence against protesters, the UN Security Council yesterday didn’t endorse punitive measures against Libya’s government.
The UN council met at the request of Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s deputy ambassador to the UN who broke with Qaddafi and called attacks on protesters “genocide.” He asked the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to block any movement of arms or mercenaries into the country, ensure safe passage for humanitarian supplies and investigate crimes allegedly committed by the regime.
State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said the U.S. ordered all non-emergency embassy personnel and dependents to leave Libya.
Crowley said there are several thousand U.S. citizens in Libya, many of them dual nationals. Of as many as 600 with only U.S. citizenship, he said, many work for energy companies and are “shutting down their operations and making their way out of the country.”
Once U.S. embassy personnel are safe, the White House should ratchet up pressure against the Qaddafi regime, said Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser under former President George W. Bush.
Freezing Bank Accounts
Abrams, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, suggested freezing the country’s bank accounts so Qaddafi loyalists can’t raid them, imposing an international arms embargo on Libya and enacting a no-fly zone enforced by the U.S. and NATO or European Union air forces.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the violence by government forces against Libyan citizens “appalling” and said the U.S. is monitoring the effect of the crisis on oil prices.
“We call on the governments in the region to listen to and respect the wishes and aspirations of their people” for democratic changes, Carney told reporters traveling with the president aboard Air Force One.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on the administration to consider reimposing sanctions on Libya that were lifted under former President George W. Bush in 2004.
Kerry urged U.S. and international oil companies to cease operations there. Among the U.S. companies that do business in Libya are Marathon Oil Corp., ConocoPhillips and Halliburton Co. all based in Houston; New York-based Hess Corp. and Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp.
Libya is Africa’s third-largest oil producer after Nigeria and Angola. In terms of proven oil reserves, Libya’s deposit of 44.3 billion barrels is the largest in Africa and 3.3 percent of the world’s total, according to BP Plc’s Statistical Review of World Energy.