Trapped ferry limits U.S. response to Libya crisis

WASHINGTON Thu Feb 24, 2011 3:50pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A ferry carrying hundreds of Americans and other passengers that has become central to Washington's response to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's bloody crackdown on opponents remained trapped in Tripoli on Thursday.

U.S. officials say they have tempered their response to the violence in Libya for fear that tougher language could invite retaliation against U.S. citizens in the North African country. High winds and rough seas have stalled the ferry's departure.

Senior State Department official Bill Burns has spoken twice to Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa and thanked him for his government's help in evacuating U.S. citizens, spokesman P.J. Crowley said, underscoring Washington's delicate balancing act as it tries to get its citizens out of harms way.

The ferry, which has 285 passengers, may depart for the Mediterranean island of Malta later on Thursday if the weather permits, Crowley said.

The passengers include 167 U.S. citizens and 118 people of other nationalities. They have been on board the vessel for more than 24 hours while soldiers loyal to Gaddafi crack down on opponents in the streets outside the port.

"I'm sure the conditions are difficult for anyone who's on the ship for this long and it hasn't moved," Crowley said.

U.S. security personnel were on board, he said, without identifying who they were or whether they were armed. They did not include Marines, who are often posted at U.S. embassies.

Libyan security forces were controlling the perimeter of the port and had allowed provisions, including fruit, to be loaded on board.

The U.S. government estimates that several thousand Americans live in Libya. Most hold dual citizenship, and about 600 carry U.S. passports only.

Crowley said bad weather had also delayed plans for a U.S. chartered flight to land in Tripoli on Thursday and it was now due to arrive on Friday. An estimated 5,000 people of all nationalities were at Tripoli's airport, he said.

(Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by John Whitesides)

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