WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration froze assets of the Libyan government, leader Muammar Gaddafi and four of his children Friday, just hours after it closed the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and evacuated its remaining staff. U.S. officials said announcements of the steps were withheld until Americans wishing to leave the country had departed as they feared Gaddafi might retaliate amid worsening violence in the North African country.
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The measures announced Friday ended days of cautious U.S. condemnation of Gaddafi that had been driven by concerns for the safety of U.S. citizens in Libya. They struck directly at his family, which is believed to have amassed great wealth over his four decades in power.
President Barack Obama accused the Gaddafi regime of violating "human rights, brutalization of its people and outrageous threats." In a statement issued by the White House, the president said "Gaddafi, his government and close associates have taken extreme measures against the people of Libya, including by using weapons of war, mercenaries and wanton violence against unarmed civilians."
"I further find that there is a serious risk that Libyan state assets will be misappropriated by Gaddafi, members of his government, members of his family, or his close associates if those assets are not protected," Obama said.
"By any measure, Muammar Gaddafi's government has violated international norms and common decency and must be held accountable," the statement said. He added that the instability in Libya constituted an "unusual and extraordinary threat" to U.S. national security and foreign policy.
As Obama's statement was released, the Treasury Department identified the initial subjects of the sanctions: three of Gaddafi's sons – heir apparent Seif al-Islam, Khamis and Muatassim – and a daughter, Aisha. The presidential order also directs the secretaries of state and treasury to identify other individuals who are senior officials of the Libyan government, children of Gaddafi and others involved in the violence.
Stuart Levey, undersecretary for terrorism at the Treasury Department, said officials believe "substantial sums of money" will be frozen under the order. He declined to give an estimate.
The sharper U.S. tone and pledges of tough action came after American diplomatic personnel were evacuated from the capital of Tripoli aboard a chartered ferry and a chartered airplane, escorting them away from the violence to Malta and Turkey. As they left, fighting raged on in Tripoli and elsewhere in Libya as Gaddafi vowed to crush the rebellion that now controls large parts of the country.
With U.S. diplomats and others out of harm's way, the administration moved swiftly. Shortly after the chartered plane left Libyan airspace, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. had been constrained in moving against Gaddafi and his loyalists due to concerns over the safety of Americans but was now ready to bring more pressure on the government to halt its attacks on opponents.
"It's clear that Col. Gaddafi has lost the confidence of his people," Carney told reporters. "He is overseeing the brutal treatment of his people, the fatal violence against his own people and his legitimacy has been reduced to zero in the eyes of his people."
Carney said sanctions would "make it clear that the regime has to stop its abuses, it has to stop the bloodshed." International officials say thousands may be dead.
The hesitancy to outline a broader range of sanctions may reflect in part the administration's skepticism that it had few options to influence Gaddafi and more particularly to assess a successor. The 68-year-old leader has had a rocky relationship with the West, and American officials are worried about his unpredictability as he desperately seeks to maintain his four-decade grip on power.
U.S. military action is considered unlikely, although the Obama administration has not ruled out participation in an internationally administered protective no-fly zone.
Carney said some sanctions would be unilateral, and others would be coordinated with international allies and the United Nations, whose chief, Ban Ki-moon, was invited to Washington for Monday talks with Obama. Carney cited U.N. negotiations on a possible weapons embargo.
The U.S. suspended operations at its Tripoli embassy after a chartered flight took the last embassy staff out of the country at 1:49 p.m. ES. That followed a ferry that departed earlier Friday and arrived in Malta with nearly 338 passengers aboard, including 183 Americans.
It did not break, however, break diplomatic relations with Libya because it wants to retain the ability to communicate directly with Libyan officials to appeal for restraint and an end to the violence, State Department officials said. The embassy will be re-opened once security conditions permit, they said.
The administration stressed that the U.S. pressure was part of a broader movement to bring peace to Libya, with several officials saying the international community was speaking with a single voice on the matter. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is headed to Switzerland on Sunday to meet foreign policy chiefs from key allies.
The U.S. maintained a stiff embargo against Libya for years, calling it a terrorist sponsor. Washington eased restrictions over the past several years in recognition of Gaddafi's decision to renounce his nuclear weapons program and his cooperation in anti-terror operations. Carney said the U.S. would suspend the limited military cooperation it had with the country.
Libya ranks among the world's most corrupt countries and has enormous assets to plunder. Confidential State Department cables suggest that U.S. banks manage hundreds of millions in Libyan assets and the government has built a multibillion-dollar wealth fund from oil sales.
In Geneva, U.S. diplomats joined a unanimous condemnation of Libya at the U.N. Human Rights Council, which launched an investigation into possible crimes against humanity by Gaddafi's regime and recommended Libya's suspension from the body.
The U.N. Security Council in New York was discussing action simultaneously Friday, and NATO was talking about deploying ships and surveillance aircraft to the Mediterranean Sea.
Carney insisted the sanctions could work.
"Sanctions that affect the senior political leadership of a regime like Libya have been shown to have an effect," he said. We are also ... pursuing actions that will ensure that the perpetrators of violations of human rights are held accountable."