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updated 2/23/2011 6:09:01 PM ET 2011-02-23T23:09:01

President Barack Obama condemned violence in Libya as outrageous and unacceptable and said he would dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Geneva for international talks aimed at stopping the bloodshed.

He said he directed his administration to prepare a "full range of options" to pressure Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime to halt attacks against Libyans as violent clashes spread throughout the North African country. He said the options included possible sanctions that the U.S. could take with its allies as well as steps it might take by itself.

Obama, with Clinton at his side, made the announcements Wednesday in his first public comments on the fierce unrest sweeping Libya in the aftermath of uprisings in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. The week-old protests in Libya have been met by a far more brutal response from militiamen loyal to Gadhafi.

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"The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable," Obama said. "So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya."

Obama broke his public silence on the violence after the U.S. succeeded in beginning evacuations of American citizens from the chaotic situation.

"We are doing everything we can to protect American citizens," Obama said, calling U.S. citizens' safety his highest priority.

"It is imperative that the nations and peoples of the world speak with one voice,'' Obama said, adding "the whole world is watching."

Story: Libya protesters to try to capture Gadhafi

Obama also said the Middle East protests are not spurred by the United States.

"The change taking place across the region is driven by the people of the region," he said.

In the meantime, U.S. officials urged Americans to leave Libya immediately.

"We urge Americans to depart immediately," Clinton said, adding that "our foremost concern has to be for the safety and security of our own citizens."

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'Immediate need'
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for Europe to suspend all economic ties with Libya and to adopt sanctions.

The U.N.'s top human rights official suggested on Wednesday that a no-fly zone may be imposed over Libya to protect civilians from attacks by government aircraft.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told The Associated Press that if unconfirmed reports of aerial attacks against civilians turn out to be true, "I think there's an immediate need for that level of protection."

Video: Obama: Bloodshed in Libya unacceptable (on this page)

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday condemned the use of force against peaceful demonstrators in Libya and called for those responsible for such attacks to be held to account.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said the situation in Libya was still very fluid and could go in many different directions, many of which are dangerous, NBC News reported.

He said that the nature and scale of the attacks on civilians was a "egregious violation" of international human rights laws and that he condemned the actions "loudly and without qualification," NBC News reported.

Diplomats and analysts say that getting international agreement on sanctions would be protracted and possibly unsuccessful, making it more likely that countries such as the United States would have to go it alone.

Crowley said Washington was looking at the possibility of freezing Libyan assets, including those of its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, but no decision had been made yet.

Crowley's comments marked the toughest U.S. response to date on the bloodshed in Libya, in which hundreds of people are reported to have been killed by security forces backed by tanks and warplanes.

Obama was to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday and will make a statement later in the day or on Thursday, Carney said. It would be Obama's first public comments on the situation in Libya.

'Alarmed by the horrific violence'
"He's ... extremely concerned and alarmed by the horrific violence and bloodshed that's happened in Libya and he will make that clear," Carney said.

U.S. officials suggested the earlier muted U.S. response to the violence was due to fears that Gadhafi could retaliate against U.S. citizens in Libya.

Video: Americans await evacuation from falling Libya (on this page)

The State Department said it had begun processing Americans in Tripoli for evacuation to Malta aboard a chartered ferry with room for about 600 passengers.

The ferry was due to leave Tripoli in the early afternoon local time but State Department officials did not respond to calls and e-mails asking whether it had left yet.

The U.S. government estimates there are several thousand Americans living in Libya. Most hold dual citizenship with about 600 carrying U.S. passports only.

While some European leaders have condemned Gadhafi, Obama — the first U.S. leader to meet the Libyan leader — has made no comments in public so far.

Some analysts see this is a deliberate tactic, while others have been sharply critical and say he should adopt a more muscular stance.

The U.S. government began lifting its trade embargo and wide sanctions regime against Libya in 2004, after Tripoli abandoned efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and opened its territory to international weapons inspectors.

No specific steps
On Tuesday, the Clinton condemned the "appalling" violence in Libya, where security forces have unleashed a bloody crackdown on protesters demanding the ouster of the longtime dictator Gadhafi.

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"This violence is completely unacceptable," Clinton said. "We believe that the government of Libya bears responsibility for what is occurring and must take actions to end the violence."

The mercurial Gadhafi — once termed the "mad dog of the Middle East" by President Ronald Reagan — has long flummoxed U.S. officials. He is notoriously unpredictable and has been known to fly into rages at real or perceived slights.

The Obama administration has yet to outline any specific steps to coerce or punish the Libyan regime, with which the U.S. has built a wary partnership after years of branding Gadhafi a terrorist sponsor. After decades of hostility, the U.S. and Libya normalized ties during President George W. Bush's presidency after Gadhafi renounced terrorism and weapons of mass destruction but relations have been far from fully cordial.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Americans await evacuation from falling Libya

  1. Closed captioning of: Americans await evacuation from falling Libya

    >>> good evening. cities and towns are falling in libya , falling from moammar gadhafi 's control, but not the big one, not yet. his headquarters of tripoli being controlled by forces loyal to him in what increasingly looks like a violent civil war . the american effort tonight is this, get u.s. citizens out of there by ferry boat and get out ahead of what's happening. we heard from the president a short time ago.

    >> the suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and it is unacceptable. so are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of libya . these actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. this violence must stop.

    >> the president at the white house tonight. and while the world watches this fight, gadhafi still has a lot of power in reserve still should he choose to use it, but he's be battling a tide against him and it may be closing in. leading off our coverage once again tonight, our chief foreign correspondent, richard engel , in libya . richard , good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. as you mentioned, people are now trying to leave this country. the state department says that hundreds of americans are safely aboard a ferry for evacuation, but evacuations have been complicated as what started as a pro- democracy movement has descended into war. gadhafi loyalists today were reportedly firing at random. in the libyan capital, now a war zone . thousands of foreigners are struggling to leave tripoli . the airport is crowded, but flights are few. it's unclear how many have been killed in the fighting in libya so far, but mass graves are already being dug. moammar gadhafi is still believed to be in tripoli but he hasn't been seen since his rambling speech last night, but gadhafi 's world is shrinking. there's now another libya , firmly in rebel hands. we drove 300 miles into libya today, a journey through rebel territory. we have now left and are on the highway heading west . most of the cars are going in the opposite direction, toward the egyptian border. clearly people leaving and taking everything with them. the terrain is harsh, mostly scrub and desert, but the highway was new. we were able to move fast. we quickly reached a city on the mediterranean coast . suddenly, we drove into a protest. children were up front. they shouted "free libya " as men behind them cheered "the people want to topple the regime." the demonstrators are all chanting the same thing.

    >> reporter: the demonstrators covered our car with a libyan flag , the old one flown before gadhafi took power. the protesters were mostly friendly. they believe media coverage helped overthrow the government in tunisia and egypt, but there were a few hard stares in this city with the reputation for islamic militants . we left the city at dusk, still heading west . in the next town, we were surprised again by demonstrators on top of an armored personnel carrier , a war trophy . protesters say this armored vehicle was being used by gadhafi forces to shoot on the people. now they have taken control of it and are driving it themselves. the rebels are now armed with heavy weapons, to show they're prepared to use them, some fired guns in the air. nearby we were taken to a house to see a half dozen men, prisoners, captured three days ago during a previously unreported major battle. the prisoners, all libyans, surrendered to save their lives. they looked despondent and understandably nervous. they told us they had been fighting alongside foreign mercenaries who were summarily executed by the rebels. rebel-controlled libya is leaderless, chaotic and harsh but also determined to advance to capture tripoli . rebels tell us that the oil fields in eastern libya are now being protected and controlled by army units that defected from gadhafi .

    >> richard , we know that some in the libyan military are leaving the job, two of them parachuted off the job today and let their jets crash rather than bomb fellow libyans. but gadhafi still has some power to bring to bear. he could ask or order his navy to strike, his air force . this calls for speculation, but how and when do you see this ending?

    >> reporter: when is very difficult to know. but both people -- people on both sides, pro gadhafi and anti- gadhafi think this will end badly. the protesters say the only way for this to end is for gadhafi to be killed. he says he won't leave the country. people close to gadhafi believe he is capable of carrying out a massive kind of attack against civilians in order to try to force them to give up this rebellion.

    >> richard engel after another harrowing day of travels across libya . richard , you and your teams continue to stay safe. we

Timeline: Recent Middle East unrest

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