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World ramps up pressure on Gaddafi

TRIPOLI, Mar 01 – Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi insisted his people loved him but was slammed as "delusional" as Western nations prepared Tuesday to ramp up pressure to prevent a full-blown catastrophe in his country.

The United States said it had blocked around $30 billion in Libyan assets, the largest amount ever frozen, while the European Union also imposed its toughest international sanctions yet on Kadhafi\’s crumbling regime.

US and European leaders weighed the use of NATO air power to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and stop Kadhafi from using air strikes against his own people, as the strongman fights a bloody rearguard action against encroaching rebels.

Fears grew over the humanitarian fallout after more than six weeks of turmoil as the United Nations stepped up warnings of a mass exodus from Libya. More than 100,000 people have already fled into Egypt and Tunisia.

Kadhafi was unrepentant, although his regime now controls only some western areas around the capital and a few long-time bastions in the arid south. Key oil fields in the east have fallen to the opposition.

Rights groups say at least 1,000 people have been killed in the regime\’s harsh crackdown on protesters.

"They love me. All my people with me. They love me all. They will die to protect me," Kadhafi said in an interview with Western journalists in Tripoli on Monday, laughing off suggestions that he might leave Libya as the White House aired the prospect of exile for him.

US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the interview showed "how unfit he is to lead and how disconnected he is from reality".

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"It sounds just frankly delusional, when he can talk and laugh to an American and (an) international journalist while he is slaughtering his own people," Rice said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have jointly called for a special meeting of leaders to "consider further European Union action" against the Libyan regime, as the US military said it was repositioning its naval forces in the Mediterranean.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied that military action was imminent but said Kadhafi should quit power "now".

In Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council, Clinton also said that backing peaceful political transitions was not just a matter of ideals but a "strategic imperative" for the West.

Anger at authoritarian Arab regimes in the Middle East and North Africa raged from Algeria to Yemen and has spread to the previously unaffected Gulf states of Djibouti, Kuwait and Oman.

 Pro-democracy protesters planned fresh demonstrations on Tuesday in Yemen, Bahrain, Oman and Iran while interim regimes in Egypt and Tunisia felt renewed pressure from protesters impatient for real democratic change.

Egypt imposed a travel ban Monday on its ousted president Hosni Mubarak, who resigned and retreated to his home in Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea on February 11 following weeks of protests.

Fresh clashes erupted on Monday between Omani police and protesters, a day after police killed at least one as the regional turmoil reached the normally calm Gulf sultanate.

Two ministers in Tunisia\’s interim government quit on Monday, a day after prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi resigned following protests demanding the removal of figures from the toppled hardline regime.

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On the ground in Libya, forces loyal to Kadhafi on Monday attacked the town of Misrata, 150 kilometres (95 miles) east of Tripoli, and killed two people, a witness said.

Opposition forces in control of the city said they thwarted an attack by pro-government forces and a military helicopter was hit by anti-aircraft fire.

According to witnesses, the cities of Zliten, west of Misrata, and Kadhafi\’s hometown of Sirte were still under the control of pro-regime forces late Monday.

Canada\’s Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said in Geneva on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council meeting that several allies were balking at the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone.

"In terms of the no-fly zone, there doesn\’t seem to be consensus among our allies," Cannon said, declining to offer Canada\’s position. "We still don\’t have enough information."

Cameron admitted earlier the plan was fraught with difficulty: "We would be trying to cover a vast area, it would take a serious amount of military assets to achieve it."

The United Nations General Assembly votes on a resolution on whether to suspend Libya from the UN Human Rights Council later on Tuesday.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said "the threat of violent reprisals against civilians still looms" in Libya.

In Asian trade Tuesday, Brent North Sea crude for April delivery gained 62 cents to $112.42 and New York\’s main contract was up 44 cents to $97.41.

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Libya\’s opposition said it was resuming oil exports suspended during the unrest, and had loaded a tanker with one million barrels of crude for China.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, one of Kadhafi\’s few remaining allies, again accused the United States of plotting to invade Libya with European connivance.

"What do they want? Libya\’s oil," he said.

But UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Kadhafi had "lost legitimacy when he declared war on his people", adding his regime was meeting "the winds of change" sweeping across the region.

In Benghazi, the first city to break free of Kadhafi\’s 41-year rule, pro-democracy protesters insisted they can unseat the strongman alone, without foreign help.

"The Iraqi example scares everyone in the Arab world," said Abeir Imneina, a professor of political science at the university of Benghazi, recalling the devastating sectarian violence that rocked Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion.

"We don\’t want the Americans to come and then to have to regret Kadhafi," she added.

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