BENGHAZI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi came under intensified international pressure Monday to halt attacks on anti-regime protesters, with the Pentagon dispatching ships and aircraft to the Mediterranean Sea and the Treasury Department freezing a record $30 billion in assets tied to the embattled dictator and his family.
Forces loyal to Gadhafi launched counterattacks on cities held by rebels in Libya, but apparently failed to dislodge them from the key western city of Zawiyah, 50 miles from the capital, Tripoli. There were reports that Gadhafi's government had launched new airstrikes against its opponents.
As new violence flared, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that the Libyan leader leave. "It is time for Gadhafi to go — now, without further violence or delay," she said at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
But Gadhafi, in an interview with three Western news organizations, laughingly dismissed the idea of ceding power, increasing the likelihood of a long, bloody battle for oil-rich Libya's future.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
"How can one believe this statement when he (Gadhafi) says there is absolutely no demonstrations whatsoever?" U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in an interview with McClatchy in Washington. "He has declared war on his own people and so he lost totally his legitimacy."
The U.N. has "reports and information (that) suggest quite credible figures of killings in the thousands" of protesters by Gadhafi militiamen and African mercenaries since the insurrection erupted nearly two weeks ago, said Ban, who discussed the crisis earlier in the day with President Barack Obama.
Pentagon spokesmen didn't detail the purpose of the U.S. ship and aircraft movements, but the moves didn't appear to signal direct U.S. military intervention in Libya. Among the ships being sent, reports said, is the USS Kearsarge, which carries nearly 2,000 Marines and dozens of helicopters.
"We have planners working and various contingency plans and I think it's safe to say as part of that we're repositioning forces to be able to provide for that flexibility once decisions are made," said Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
In Geneva, Clinton suggested the mission was primarily humanitarian.
"We do believe that there will be the need for support for humanitarian intervention. We also know that there will probably, unfortunately, be the need for rescue missions" because of the large numbers of people fleeing Libya and neighboring Tunisia, she said. "But there is not any pending military action involving U.S. naval vessels."
In Benghazi, liberated from Gadhafi's control, residents strongly oppose outside military intervention in what they consider a purely Libyan revolution.
"No foreign intervention. We don't want to be like Iraq," said Ahmed Sukaya Pobaee, a lieutenant in the new anti-Gadhafi army.
The State Department said it's dispatching aid teams to Libya's refugee-choked borders with Egypt and Tunisia.
The U.N. is stockpiling medicines and foods to rush into Libya on the eastern border with Egypt, Ban said, but the Gadhafi regime is refusing to allow the organization into Tripoli to do the same there. "To Tripoli, we have a very serious problem with access because they are showing hostility to the U.N. staff," he said.
There are also an estimated 100,000 foreigners, mostly Egyptians and Tunisians, trying to leave the country through its borders with Egypt and Tunisia, and a looming humanitarian crisis inside Libya, Ban said.
On the financial front, David Cohen, the Treasury Department's acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said at least $30 billion in assets belonging to Gadhafi and his family, and to Libya's central bank, had been frozen.
"This is the largest blocking under any sanctions program ever," Cohen said, adding that other individuals may be added to the list.
The European Union also imposed new sanctions on Gadhafi's regime Monday, banning weapons sales and freezing the assets of senior Libyan official.
Gadhafi, facing an uprising that threatens to end his 42 years of control over Libya, was launching counterattacks at several locations controlled by the rebels, residents reached by phone said. The main flashpoints appeared to be the cities of Zawiyah and Misurata, Libya's third-largest city, to the east of Tripoli.
A resident reached by telephone in Zawiyah said the first attacks from pro-regime forces came from east and west of the city, but were beaten back.
A new assault was launched after nightfall, said the resident, who asked that his name not be used for safety reasons. "There is an attack now because I see shooting in the sky to the west of Zawiyah," he said.
In Washington, a U.S. official who closely follows the crisis dismissed reports that rebels were preparing to move on Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli, saying that they're still occupied with consolidating their control of the individual cities and towns that they have seized in the past 10 days.
"There is no large-scale, organized push towards Tripoli," said the U.S. official, who wasn't authorized to discuss the situation for the record. "There is no grand, overall plan or scheme."
The committees of prominent citizens, former officials and military defectors that have emerged to run rebellious towns and cities are still embroiled in fighting off attacks by pro-Gadhafi forces, as in the case of Zawiyah, or organizing themselves to provide for their defenses and essential services, and establishing contacts with each other, the U.S. official said.
Gadhafi, in the interview with Western media, denied that people were protesting against him in Zawiyah — even though international journalists on a government-sponsored tour had witnessed anti-regime forces in control of the city.
"No, none were against us. . . . They love me. All my people with me. They love me all. They will die to protect me, my people," the Libyan dictator told ABC News, the BBC and the Times of London in Tripoli.
Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., told reporters at the White House that Gadhafi sounds "delusional," that he is "slaughtering his own people" and that his attitude in new television interviews "underscores how unfit he is to lead and how disconnected he is from reality."
Reports that Gadhafi had bombed his opponents from the air was likely to intensify calls in the U.S. and Europe of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya's airspace.
Rice said a no-fly zone is being considered "actively and seriously," but added that a decision on U.S. or NATO military assistance to the anti-Gadhafi forces is premature because it's "unclear at this point who will emerge as the critical opposition elements."
A no-fly zone would seek to prevent Gadhafi from using aircraft to attack protesters, move equipment and personnel, or ferry in foreign mercenaries who have been killing Gadhafi's opponents.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, in an interview with Reuters, said Italy would consider making available its bases in the Mediterranean to enforce a no-fly zone. Italy has suspended a 2008 non-aggression pact with Libya, he said.
But a European diplomat cautioned that a no fly zone faces many "difficulties and constraints."
The plan would have to be approved by the U.N. Security Council, where veto-holding members Russia and China may not agree, said the diplomat, who requested anonymity to speak more frankly. It would also be a major military operation, and would involve the politically risky step of Western military intervention in another Arab country, he said.
News reports Monday said Gadhafi had appointed his intelligence chief, Bouzaid Dordah, to negotiate with the temporary government that is being formed in eastern areas freed from his control.
But in Benghazi, officials flatly closed the door to negotiations. Given the bloodshed across the country, including roughly 300 killed in Libya's second-largest city, makes that impossible, local officials said.
"There is only (one) demand; Gadhafi has to leave," said Abdullah Shamia, an advisor to the 13-member committee in charge of Benghazi. "There is no negotiation."
(Youssef reported from Benghazi, Landay and Strobel, from Washington. Margaret Talev and Kevin G. Hall contributed to this article from Washington.)
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY