WASHINGTON President Barack Obama consulted the leaders of Britain, France and Italy on Thursday on immediate steps to end the Libyan crisis, as Washington kept all options open, including sanctions and military action, to stem the bloodshed.
The United States is working to build international consensus for action against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's government, which Obama has condemned for "outrageous" violence against its people.
"I'm not ruling out bilateral options," White House spokesman Jay Carney said when asked whether the United States was considering military steps. "I'm not ruling anything out."
He said the situation in the North African oil-producing nation "demands quick action."
Obama's talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- one of the few world leaders to have had recent direct contact with Gaddafi -- were focused on next steps, the White House said in a statement.
"The president expressed his deep concern with the Libyan government's use of violence which violates international norms and every standard of human decency, and discussed appropriate and effective ways for the international community to immediately respond," the statement said.
U.S. officials said specific steps could include seeking stronger U.N. Security Council action, including possible sanctions, support for calls to suspend Libya from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and creating and enforcing a no-fly zone to prevent further government attacks.
Other measures under consideration including suspending Libya's export licenses, freezing the assets of certain Libyan individuals including members of the Gaddafi family, sending humanitarian relief and increasing the ability to broadcast into Libya, the officials said.
A rumor Gaddafi was dead pushed down oil prices that have surged due to the crisis and unrest elsewhere in the region, but a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had no reason to believe it was true.
Bad weather kept a chartered ferry sent to evacuate Americans from Libya docked in Tripoli with 285 passengers on board, including 167 U.S. citizens and 118 people of other nationalities, the State Department said.
Neither Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had direct contact with Gaddafi but Under Secretary of State William Burns spoke twice with Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa on Wednesday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Crowley said Gaddafi had sent "messages" through Libyan officials to the U.S. government but indicated they tracked his public statements, which have said Libya's protesters are inspired by al Qaeda and under the influence of drugs.
With oil markets nervously watching the Libya turmoil, The White House said it was "very cognizant" that oil price increases could hurt the weak U.S. economy, but said the country had the capacity to act, possibly by tapping strategic oil reserves, in the event of a major supply disruption.
Critics accuse the United States of reacting too slowly to Libya's unrest, but analysts say the measured approach reflects Washington's wariness of being seen as acting on its own in a region where many harbor deep suspicions of U.S. motives.
"I think that the administration is conscious of the need not to be way out front in a unilateral fashion," said Charles Reis, director of the Rand think tank's Center for Middle East Public Policy and former senior State Department official.
"There are considerable risks to a more high-profile U.S. approach. It sets up a target."
Clinton will fly to Geneva for a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday, where she is expected to push for broad condemnation of Gaddafi's bloody attempt to suppress a revolt against his four-decade rule.
Crowley said the United States backed a draft resolution to suspend Libya from the rights council, and U.S. officials said it would also support other moves, including an independent inquiry into alleged human rights violations, in votes that could come on Friday.
Clinton would use her trip to discuss options for the Human Rights Council and the U.N. Security Council, which is expected to hold a second round of consultations on Libya perhaps as early as Friday.
"She'll have the opportunity to try to build the kind of consensus for action," he said, adding that the United States was expected to take action "incoming days."
(additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Philip Barbara)