WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States began moving warships and aircraft closer to Libya on Monday and froze $30 billion in Libyan assets, ramping up pressure on leader Muammar Gaddafi after calling on him to step aside.
Gaddafi is “slaughtering his own people,” unfit to lead and “disconnected from reality,” the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said at the White House in the hardest-hitting U.S. denunciation yet of the Libyan leader.
News of the military preparations and the tougher U.S. rhetoric follow days of criticism of the Obama administration by Republican lawmakers, conservative commentators and others for its initially cautious response to the turmoil in Libya.
The administration has defended its response, saying it had been reluctant to take any steps that could endanger U.S. citizens in the North African country. Washington imposed sanctions on Libya on Friday just hours after a plane carrying some of the last Americans flew out of the capital Tripoli.
In addition to repositioning military units and freezing Gaddafi’s assets, Washington was also working with allies on imposing a possible “no-fly” zone over the country.
Rice said the United States was waiting to see how the Libyan opposition, which has seized large swaths of the oil-producing country, would coalesce. It is premature to talk about military assistance to them, she said.
The repositioned U.S. ships could be used for humanitarian and rescue missions, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Geneva, where she told the U.N. Human Rights Council it was “time for Gaddafi to go — now.”
“There is not any pending military action involving U.S. naval vessels,” she said after the Pentagon announced it was moving warships and air force units closer to Libya.
U.S. oil prices, which have risen due to the turmoil in Libya and unrest elsewhere in the region, did not respond to the news, trading down 80 cents at $97 a barrel.
“We are moving ships closer to Libya in case they are needed,” said Colonel David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. Aircraft were also being moved nearer, he said.
The Obama administration has said military action is one option it is looking at, although many analysts say the United States is highly unlikely to launch a ground invasion or air strikes because of the volatile situation on the ground.
The Pentagon gave no details of the forces being moved but its announcement was likely aimed at sending a signal to Gaddafi and his government that the United States was matching its sharper rhetoric of recent days with action.
It was not immediately clear what ships the U.S. Navy has in the Mediterranean but it does have two aircraft carriers further southeast in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.
The United States has a major base in Naples, Italy, home to its Mediterranean headquarters, as well as in Rota, Spain.
U.S. planes bombed Libya in 1986, killing more than 40 people including Gaddafi’s adopted baby daughter, in response to a Berlin bombing blamed on Libya that killed three people in a Berlin disco used by U.S. servicemen.
U.S. authorities are also putting the financial squeeze on Gaddafi to pressure him to go.
President Barack Obama signed an executive order freezing Libyan assets on Friday. A Treasury Department official said on Monday that about $30 billion of Libyan assets in the United States have been blocked from access by Gaddafi and his family.
David Cohen, acting Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the sum was the largest ever blocked.
Rice said the United States was talking to NATO allies about military options but so far the focus had been on contingency planning.
One option on the table is the no-fly zone, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
A no-fly zone would stop Gaddafi using warplanes or helicopters to attack rebels who have seized large parts of the country, although it is far from clear how big a role the Libyan air force has played in the crisis so far.
Military aircraft circled a town in rebel-held eastern Libya on Monday, a security official said, adding that an earlier report they bombed an arms dump was incorrect.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, Glenn Somerville, Matt Spetalnick and Alister Bull in Washington, Andrew Quinn in Geneva and Peter Apps in London; writing by Ross Colvin; editing by Mohammad Zargham