THE HAGUE The international war crimes tribunal said on Thursday it would investigate Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, his sons and members of their inner circle for crimes committed by their security forces.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of the Hague-based International Criminal Court, pointing to a bloody crackdown on demonstrators against Gaddafi's rule in which thousands may have died, said that no one had the authority to massacre civilians.
He said the court would investigate "serious crimes" and had identified several people at the top of the command chain who could be investigated.
"They are Muammar Gaddafi, his inner circle including some of his sons, who had de facto authority," Moreno-Ocampo said.
If opposition groups also have weapons and commit crimes, their leaders will also be investigated. "We will act with impartiality," he said.
The United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Gaddafi and his family on Saturday, and referred Libya's crackdown on demonstrators to the court.
Gaddafi has vowed to stay in Libya and fight to the death since protests against his 41-year rule began in mid-February, inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that ousted longstanding authoritarian rulers.
The prosecutor said air strikes and attacks, alleged to have been made by security forces, and illegal detentions of hundreds of people would be investigated, including violence in the eastern city of Benghazi on February 15 and attacks in the capital Tripoli on February 20.
"No one has the authority to attack and massacre civilians," Moreno-Ocampo said, adding that he could request the issue of arrest warrants over the atrocities in a few months' time.
Libyan government spokesman Musa Ibrahim called the probe "close to a joke" since no fact-finding mission had been sent to his country, and said it was based purely on media reports.
"We have armed gangs having tanks, aircraft and machineguns and attacking police stations, army camps, ports and airports and occupying Libyan cities. This is far away from a peaceful movement," he told BBC radio.
Khaled Kaim, deputy Libyan foreign minister, told Al Arabiya "We are not under the jurisdiction of the court, we are not signatories ... The court has no power over Libya."
Other people in Gaddafi's circle who will come under the court's scrutiny include the commander of the 32nd brigade, foreign mercenaries, a government spokesman and the National Security Adviser, Moreno-Ocampo said.
He did not name them but said the inner circle included some of Gaddafi's sons. The 32nd brigade leader is Gaddafi's son Khamis.
Outside that circle, he pointed to the head of Gaddafi's personal security, the director general of the Libyan External Security Organization, the head of the Security Forces and other organization leaders as potential suspects.
Earlier on Thursday, Gaddafi's forces struck at rebel control of oil export hubs in eastern Libya for a second day as Arab states weighed a plan to end the turmoil.
Rebels are also calling for a no-fly zone, echoing a demand by Libya's deputy U.N. envoy, who now opposes Gaddafi.
The ICC has no police force and has struggled in the past to have suspects arrested.
* Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is still at large after being charged with genocide in Darfur
* Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony has eluded efforts to capture him.
* Former Liberian president Charles Taylor was arrested, and is now on trial for war crimes at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague.
Bill Pace, head of a coalition of NGOs that support the work of the court, said the Security Council and member states should now stand by the referral and ensure that arrests are made.
"The involvement of the ICC indicates that crimes of grave concern will not be tolerated," Pace said.
(Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block; additional reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; editing by Sara Webb and Tim Pearce)