NEW YORK //The prosecutor of the world's war crimes tribunal has found evidence that crimes against humanity were committed by Libyan government forces during crackdowns on protesters and will seek arrest warrants against three suspects within weeks.
Yesterday's briefing by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo, to the UN Security Council, came as the international community ratcheted up pressure on the Libyan leader Col Muammar Qaddafi.
In Brussels, the head of Nato said coalition air raids had significantly weakened the regime's military capabilities, while ministers from 22 nations were headed to Rome for a meeting today designed to pave the way for a post-Qaddafi Libya.
Mr Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, revealed evidence of atrocities committed in Libya since February 15, when the arrest of a rights activist in Benghazi triggered protests that escalated into a civil war and air attacks from a hastily assembled global coalition.
He told the Security Council that Col Qaddafi's forces had been "systematically shooting at peaceful protesters, following the same modus operandi in multiple locations" across the country.
He detailed instances of rape, which can constitute a war crime, and the use of "cluster munitions, multiple rocket launchers and mortars, and other forms of heavy weaponry, in crowded urban areas", which have caused civilian bloodshed.
The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, has reportedly claimed that Col Qaddafi's forces have used rape to terrorise civilians and have even been issued Viagra to promote sexual violence.
Mr Ocampo estimates that between 500 to 700 protesters were killed by Col Qaddafi's forces during February's protests alone. An ICC report has cited figures from rebel officials that as many as 10,000 people have perished in the conflict.
The prosecutor said he would seek approval for three arrest warrants from ICC judges "in the coming weeks". He has not named the three, but said crimes were committed "upon instruction of a few persons who control the organisations that execute the orders".
Arresting an ICC suspect is not automatic and several indictees, including the Sudanese president Omar al Bashir, remain at large. Mr Ocampo said rebel officials are willing to arrest suspects but urged the international community to plan to help them.
While Mr Ocampo's allegations focus on Col Qaddafi and his cabal, the ICC prosecutor also suggested impropriety by rebel forces during a spate of violence against black Africans who were considered to be mercenaries fighting on Col Qaddafi's payroll.
He described the reported "unlawful arrest, mistreatment and killings of sub-Saharan Africans wrongly perceived to be mercenaries" in Benghazi and other cities by "angry mobs of protesters" that resulted in dozens of deaths.
"The new authorities in Benghazi allegedly arrested a number of sub-Saharan Africans and it is unclear whether they were innocent immigrant workers or combatants, turned prisoners of war," said Mr Ocampo. He noted that rebels were co-operating with the ICC but that the government is not.
High-level meetings took place against a backdrop of continued fighting in Libya, with Col Qaddafi's forces bombarding rebel-held cities in the west of the country and shelling an aid ship in Misurata that was trying to rescue migrant workers.
Fighting over Col Qaddafi's 41-year rule has split Libya into a government-held western area and an eastern region run by ill-disciplined rebel forces. UN-backed air strikes by a western-led coalition have not given rebels a decisive advantage over their more experienced and better-equipped adversaries.
Nato's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told reporters in Brussels yesterday that foreign jets continued to strike "important targets" and have left Col Qaddafi's military capacity "much weaker now than when our operation started" in mid-March.
"The Qaddafi regime has changed its tactics by hiding its military units in populated areas, by using human shields and in other ways," said Mr Rasmussem. "We have had to adapt our tactics as well. It's a more challenging task now than right at the beginning, but we are making steady progress."
The Nato chief also highlighted the need for a "political path" to oust Col Qaddafi - the central focus of a meeting of the so-called "Contact Group" on Libya that will take place in Rome today. Delegates in Rome will discuss setting up methods to fund the rebels. The French foreign minister Alain Juppe said envoys would try to free up Libyan financial assets that have been frozen under international economic sanctions.
The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who previously tried to play a mediating role, urged Col Qaddafi to "immediately withdraw from power and to bring to pass his historical, human and moral responsibility".