WASHINGTON // The US military deployed naval and air forces into position near Libya yesterday as international pressure mounted on Muammar Qaddafi to step down.
"We have planners working on various contingency plans," the Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said.
The deployment would give the US president Barack Obama options in the crisis, said Colonel Lapan, without specifying which ships and aircraft had been given orders or what potential action was under consideration.
The US and other nations are calling for tougher action against Colonel Qaddafi, including enforcing a no-fly zone over the country.
Voluntary exile could be one way for Colonel Qaddafi to meet international demands that he step down, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said yesterday.
The European Union (EU) imposed an arms embargo, a visa ban and other sanctions on the regime, as the British prime minister David Cameron told MPs he was working with allies on a plan to establish a military no-fly zone over Libya, since "we do not in any way rule out the use of military assets".
The Libyan government has been trying to go on the offensive to recapture towns that are rapidly falling to the uprising, and human rights groups say the regime has used planes to fire at demonstrators. Rebels in control of Zawiya, 50 kilometres west of Tripoli, the Libyan capital and Colonel Qaddafi's stronghold, claimed to have shot down a Libyan air force jet that was shooting at a local radio station.
The government offensive does not seem to have been effective, with army units switching sides across the country.
The EU package of sanctions included travel bans and a freeze on the assets of Colonel Qaddafi, members of his family and senior government officials. EU countries are the biggest trading partners for Libya, and Italy, where most of Libya's oil is sold, is now backing calls for the removal of Colonel Qaddafi.
The EU announcement came two days after the UN Security Council agreed to impose similar sanctions as well as refer Colonel Qaddafi's regime to the International Criminal Court, the first time the US has backed such a move. The US announced its own unilateral sanctions on Friday.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said yesterday at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that Colonel Qaddafi must leave power "now, without further violence or delay".
"We have seen Colonel Qaddafi's security forces open fire on peaceful protesters," Mrs Clinton said. "They have used heavy weapons on unarmed civilians. Mercenaries and thugs have been turned loose to attack demonstrators."
The purpose of her trip, Mrs Clinton told reporters as she left Washington on Sunday, was to find ways to "respond to the needs of the Libyan people not only in a humanitarian way but in a political and civil response as they try to sort through how they're going to organise themselves post-Qaddafi."
She also revealed that the US had been in contact with leaders of the uprising in Benghazi, and said the US stood ready to "offer any kind of assistance".
France said yesterday it was flying medical aid to Benghazi in what Francois Fillon, the French prime minister, called the start of a "massive" operation to support opposition forces. Mr Fillon said two planes were due to leave for Benghazi yesterday carrying doctors, nurses, medicine and medical equipment for the Libyan people in what he described as "liberated" areas.
The Australian foerign minister, Kevin Rudd, said his government would ask the United Nations to approve a no-fly zone.
"Australia is calling on the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone to help protect the Libyan people from violence they have already experienced from units of the Libyan air force," Mr Rudd told the Human Rights Council.
In Washington, members of the US Congress have also called for a no-fly zone.
"Now is the time for action, not just statements," said Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent. He accused the Obama administration of having responded too slowly to the uprising in Libya, even though he acknowledged that the caution had largely been due to the perception that the US needed to evacuate its citizens from Libya first to avoid a potential hostage crisis.
With Russia and China, through the UN, joining the West in calling on the Libyan government to be referred to the International Criminal Court, international ranks are closing.
But there is still some way to go before any direct intervention will be agreed.
One obstacle is finding agreement on who should lead any direct intervention or enforce a no-fly zone. US officials are wary of being tasked to do so outside an international body, and with troops already in Iraq and Afghanistan the US military may well baulk at having to deploy in a third country.
Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat representative from Maryland, said that while a no-fly zone was "something that needs to be looked at. I wouldn't recommend the United States do this in any unilateral fashion."
Mr Van Hollen suggested that Nato was the most appropriate organisation to undertake any military intervention. There is understood to be opposition among some member countries to involvement in North Africa, however. Last week, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato's secretary general, said Nato would not get involved unless asked by the UN, and that the North Atlantic military alliance had not received any requests to do so yet.
Nevertheless, with neither the African Union nor the Arab League a viable alternative, some suggest that Nato will need to get involved, sooner or later, and that the West should consider this an opportunity.
The invasion in 2003 and subsequent occupation of Iraq created a lot of suspicion about western motives in the region, said Anouar Boukhars, professor of Middle East and North Africa studies at McDaniel College in Maryland. Nato intervention in Libya to prevent a humanitarian disaster might be seen differently.
"This is a good opportunity for the West to salvage its reputation and to stand, for once, with the people of the region," he said
This article has been altered to correct the title of Kevin Rudd to foreign minister, not prime minister as previously stated.