Obama: Gaddafi Must Leave

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    WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama insisted Thursday that Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi “step down from power and leave,” his most explicit statement of support for rebels challenging Gaddafi’s four-decade rule in a region convulsed by uprisings against authoritarian regimes. Gaddafi has vowed to stay.

    Obama did not rule out establishing a “no-fly” zone over Libya, a move that his Pentagon chief said a day earlier would amount to an act of war because it would require bombing Libya’s air defenses. Although Obama said he was considering a full range of options, he emphasized the U.S. role in helping refugees and heading off a humanitarian crisis.

    “Let me just be very unambiguous about this. Col. Gaddafi needs to step down from power and leave,” Obama said at a White House news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

    Obama announced that U.S. military aircraft would play a humanitarian role by helping Egyptians who had fled the chaos in Libya and become stranded in Tunisia. The planes are to fly them from Tunisia back to Egypt. The Pentagon has ordered two Navy warships into the Mediterranean, but Obama did not discuss the possibility of specific military actions such as providing air cover for rebels.

    U.S. aircraft could leave as early as Friday for the first mission to help Egyptians in Tunisia return home, senior defense officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because plans have not been officially announced.

    Obama offered his most extensive remarks on the Libya crisis on a day when rebels strengthened their hold on the strategic oil installation at Brega after repelling an attempt by Gaddafi loyalists to retake it. Obama said his main focus was on limiting civilian deaths, while acknowledging his fear that the crisis could devolve into deadlock.

    ” There is a danger of a stalemate that over time could be bloody,” he said. “That is something that we are obviously considering.” He raised the possibility of Gaddafi hunkering down in the capital of Tripoli while his people suffer food shortages. Obama said the U.S. and its partners would have to consider how to get food in.

    Obama also appeared to suggest that Gaddafi loyalists switch sides in support of the revolutionaries.

    “Those around him have to understand that violence that they perpetrate against innocent civilians will be monitored and they will be held accountable for it,” Obama said. “And so to the extent that they are making calculations in their own minds about which way history is moving, they should know history is moving against Col. Gaddafi.”

    The U.S. administration has been tempering tough talk on Libya with a dose of reality, explaining that even a no-fly zone to control the skies over the country would require a military attack. Two leading senators on defense matters responded Thursday by urging a strong U.S. stance aiding Gaddafi’s opposition.

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