WASHINGTON - The Obama administration condemned on Tuesday "appalling" violence in Libya, where security forces are unleashing a bloody crackdown against protesters who have been demanding the removal of longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi.
"This violence is completely unacceptable," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.
But as it sought to extricate U.S. diplomats and other Americans safely from the violence spreading around Libya, Washington stopped short of criticizing Qaddafi personally or demanding that he step down.
The Obama administration did not 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 Qaddafi a terrorist sponsor.
U.S. officials renewed demands for Qaddafi's government to talk with opponents, and cast the political unrest there as part of a regional uprising against political and economic stagnation that must be addressed by the Arab governments of the Middle East and North Africa.
Qaddafi delivered a defiant speech on national television in which he vowed not to step down and to die a martyr's death fighting those rebelling against his more than four-decade-old leadership.
Libya teetered on the brink of what some fear will explode into a full-blown civil war, and administration officials repeatedly invoked their primary concern of ensuring the safety U.S. citizens there.
"We believe that the government of Libya bears responsibility for what is occurring and must take actions to end the violence," Clinton told reporters at the State Department.
"As always, the safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority. We are in touch with many Libyan officials directly and indirectly and with other governments in the region to try to influence what is going on inside Libya."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S. officials have been assured by Libyan authorities that the embassy workers and families will be able to leave safely and said the United States expects those pledges to be honored.
"They've pledged to support us in our evacuation, and we hope that cooperation will be forthcoming," he said.
Crowley said the department was trying to get 35 nonessential staff and family members of personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli out of the country. They were ordered to leave on Monday but have not yet been able to leave, he said. In addition, several thousand dual U.S.-Libyan nationals and about 600 U.S. citizens are believed to be in Libya now.
Asked about Qaddafi's fiery televised speech in which he repeatedly referred to his regime standing up to the United States during the Reagan administration and the 1986 U.S. airstrikes against Libyan targets, including a tent at his home, Crowley demurred.
"We want to see the bloodshed stopped," he said. "We want to see the government engage its citizens, rather than attack its citizens."
"This is ultimately and fundamentally an issue between the Libyan government, its leader, and the Libyan people," Crowley said. "They, like others, are standing up and demanding a greater say in the events of their country. We have grave concerns about the Libyan response to these protesters. We continue to be guided by our fundamental principles. We don't want to see any further violence."
Earlier, White House spokesman Jay Carney called on Qaddafi's government to respect the universal rights of its citizens and allow peaceful protests to take place. Echoing earlier White House statements about anti-government protests in Egypt, he said the future of Libya needs to be decided by the Libyan people.
"We offer our condolences to families of the victims in Libya of this appalling violence," Carney told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama to Cleveland, Ohio.
Meanwhile, top lawmakers said the United States should consider imposing new sanctions on Libya and called for foreign energy companies to shut down operations immediately in the oil-rich North African nation.
Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the violent crackdown was "cowardly" and "beyond despicable." He urged U.S. and international oil companies to suspend their Libyan operations immediately until attacks on civilians stop.
He also urged the Obama administration to consider re-imposing sanctions against Libya that were lifted by President George W. Bush after Qaddafi renounced terrorism and abandoned development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. He said the Arab League and African Union should investigate reports of atrocities.
"These are concrete steps that must be taken now and in the days ahead to show that the world will respond with actions, not just words, when a regime wields reprehensible violence against its own people," said Kerry.
The White House has sometimes tapped Kerry to float possible foreign policy strategies. Asked about Kerry's suggestions, Carney said, "We are looking at his proposal, but right now we are focusing on ending the bloodshed."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also called for the imposition of new sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans on senior Libyan officials.
"The Libyan regime's widespread attacks on the Libyan people are deplorable, and all responsible for these attacks must be held to account," she said in a statement.
In Qaddafi's appearance on state television Tuesday, he vowed to fight protesters and to die a martyr. Despite eyewitness accounts of soldiers, including alleged mercenaries, opening fire on protesters in numerous cities, he said he had not ordered the demonstrations suppressed with violence. But he said those agitating for change deserved the death penalty under Libyan law.