TRIPOLI, Feb 28 (Reuters): Foreign powers accelerated efforts to help oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Monday as rebels fought government forces trying to take back strategic coastal cities on either side of the capital Tripoli.
Gaddafi`s forces have been trying for days to push back a revolt that has won over large parts of the military, ended his control over eastern Libya and is fending off government assaults in western cities near Tripoli.
It is difficult for reporters to move around western Libya and reports of fighting were hard to verify independently.
But witnesses in both Misrata, a city of a half a million people 200 km (125 miles) to the east of Tripoli, and Zawiyah, a strategic refinery town 50 km (30 miles) to the west, said government forces were mounting or preparing attacks.
“An aircraft was shot down this morning while it was firing on the local radio station. Protesters captured its crew,” a witness in Misrata, Mohamed, told Reuters by telephone.
“Fighting to control the military air base started last night and is still going on. Gaddafi`s forces control only a small part of the base. Protesters control a large part of this base where there is ammunition.”
A Libyan government source denied the report.
A resident of Zawiyah, called Ibrahim, told Reuters by telephone: “We are expecting attacks at any moment by brigades belonging to (Gaddafi`s son) Khamis. They are on the outskirts of the town, about 5-7 km away. They are in large numbers.”
In the capital, Gaddafi`s last stronghold, a Reuters reporter saw about 400 people protesting in a square in the Tajoura district, an area already partly outside his control.
Soon after, men in sports utility vehicles pulled up and fired into the air.
Foreign governments are increasing the pressure on Gaddafi to leave in the hope of ending fighting that has claimed at least 1,000 lives and restoring order to a country that accounts for 2 percent of the world`s oil production.
The U.N. Security Council on Saturday slapped sanctions on Gaddafi and other Libyan officials, imposed an arms embargo and froze Libyan assets.
European Union governments approved their sanctions against Gaddafi in Brussels on Monday, implementing the U.N. resolution sooner than expected.
The Pentagon said it was repositioning U.S. naval and air forces around Libya “to provide options and flexibility.” The U.S. Sixth Fleet operates out of Italy.
In The Hague, the International Criminal Court prosecutor said he would finish a preliminary examination of the violence within days, after which he could open a full inquiry — a step mandated by the Council that could have taken months.
France proposed an emergency summit of EU leaders for Thursday, EU diplomats said.
In an address to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gaddafi was using “mercenaries and thugs” to repress his people and that he must step down immediately.
“Gaddafi and those around him must be held accountable for these acts, which violate international legal obligations and common decency,” Clinton said, adding that nothing was off the table as the international community considers its next steps.
However, in Washington, a White House spokesman declined to rule out that Gaddafi could be helped to go into exile.
A U.S. official in Geneva said a central aim of sanctions was to “send a message not only to Gaddafi … but to the people around Gaddafi, who are the ones we`re really seeking to influence.”
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said after meeting Clinton that he was proposing a 60-day freeze on money transfers to Libya, and believed other countries were open to the idea.