Obama aims to avoid a war of words with Qaddafi

Updated 9:49 a.m. ET

President Obama was "cautious" in his remarks Wednesday about the situation in Libya because he is concerned that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi might target Americans still in the country, CBS News has learned.

Senior White House officials told correspondent Chip Reid that Mr. Obama wants to avoid a war of words with the dictator that could provoke a hostage crisis.

Mr. Obama condemned the violence Wednesday in his first remarks since protests broke out last week (watch video), calling it "outrageous" and "unacceptable," but did not mention Qaddafi by name, much less call for him to step down as he eventually did in the case of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Complete coverage: Anger in the Arab world

The president also said he's exploring a full range of options against Libya, Reid reports, including military intervention and sanctions.

"We have refrained from statements in large part because of the safety of our people. Today, we have evacuation teed up, but also we have laid groundwork with other international statements -- for instance [the United Nations Security Council], African Union, and Arab League -- so the U.S. is rallying and joining international voices," a senior White House official told Reid.

Qaddafi wants to personalize this battle with the U.S., the official said, and the U.S. wants to make it clear that Libya is isolated from the international community as a whole.

Obama and Qaddafi
Getty

The U.S. began evacuating embassy employees and their families and other American citizens -- along with some foreigners -- on Wednesday. But a ferry scheduled to depart for Malta has been repeatedly delayed.

Qaddafi has responded to the civil unrest by hiring foreign mercenaries, using air force helicopters and jets for aerial attacks on protests and vowing greater violence should the protests continue (his son Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, acting as a proxy, used the term "rivers of blood"). Estimates on the number of protesters killed range from several hundred to more than 3,000.

"The American people extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all who have been killed and injured," the president said, lamenting "threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya."

"These violate international norms, and every standard of common decency," said Mr. Obama. "This violence must stop."

Mr. Obama said the rights of the Libyan people - among them peaceful assembly, free speech and self-determination - are "not negotiable."

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Qaddafi digs in; But what happens if regime falls?
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Qaddafi: Protesters given "hallucination pills"

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