|World leaders and rights activists have criticised the Libyan government's violent response to protests [AFP]
International condemnation of the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Libya has escalated, with the European Union pushing for a UN-led probe into human rights abuses and preparing for possible sanctions against the African nation.
A draft proposal by the 27-nation bloc on Wednesday spoke out against "extremely grave human rights violations committed in Libya, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of peaceful demonstrators," and said they could "amount to crimes against humanity".
The bloc has also agreed to prepare possible sanctions on Libya. Experts will now draw up a list of proposed measures, which could include visa bans, asset freezes, an arms embargo and other restrictions, before EU governments agree when to impose them.
The agreement came after Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, urged the EU to impose "concrete sanctions" on Libya, and David Cameron, the British prime minister, called for a full United Nations Security Council resolution on the issue.
Barack Obama, the US president, for the first time spoke on the Libyan crisis. He offered his condolences to the people who have been killed and suffered in the violence.
He said that the suffering of the Libyan people was outrageous and unacceptable.
Obama said that the Libyan government’s order to shoot at the peaceful protesters was in violation of international norms.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the government of Muammar Gaddafi will be held to account for its actions. She said the US is consulting closely with its partners and "will look at all the possible options to try to bring an end to the violence, to try to influence the government".
However, Clinton said that "in any situation, our foremost concern has to be for the safety and security of our own citizens".
Earlier on Wednesday, the US state department said it was considering reimposing sanctions on Libya and freezing Gaddafi's assets.
Gaddafi support 'crumbling'
Peru has also said it is suspending diplomatic relations with Libya and would ask the Security Council to establish an exclusion zone in Libyan airspace "to prevent the use of that country's warplanes against [its] population".
And the Libyan embassy in Austria has joined several other missions distancing themselves from Gaddafi's government, condemning the use of "excessive violence against peaceful demonstrators".
The EU's draft resolution comes two days ahead of an emergency meeting at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, over the situation in Libya.
If approved by a majority of the council's 47 members, it would be the first time the body has acted against one of its own, as Libya gained a seat on the council last year.
African and Asian countries often block criticism of abusive governments except when it has been directed at Israel, but the call for Friday's meeting was signed by Jordan, Qatar and the Palestinian Authority, indicating traditional support for Gaddafi is crumbling.
The African Union on Wednesday also condemned "the disproportionate use of force against civilians" in Libya and expressed regret at the loss of life there.
The pan-African body said in a statement that AU's Commission chief, Jean Ping, was following the situation in Libya "with great concern" and "deeply deplores the many human lives lost so far".
The International Criminal Court has said it cannot prosecute any alleged crimes against humanity in Libya without an order from the UN Security Council, or a request from Libya itself.
"The decision to do justice in Libya should be taken by the Libyan people,'' Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Hague based court's chief prosecutor, said on Wednesday.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had previously said the attacks against civilians could amount to crimes against humanity.
Hundreds of protesters have been killed in the crackdown since people took to the streets one week ago.
"We urge the Libyan government to halt immediately the use of violence against its own people, and if the use of violence does not cease then Germany will exhaust every possibility to exert pressure and influence on Libya," she said.
The Arab League has barred Libya from attending its meetings until it stops cracking down on anti-government protesters, and also condemned what it called crimes against civilians, the recruiting of foreign mercenaries and the use of live ammunition.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president whose security forces crushed protests against his 2009 re-election, has also condemned state brutality against demonstrators in Libya.
"How can a leader subject his own people to a shower of machine-guns, tanks and bombs? How can a leader bomb his own people," he said, and urged Gaddafi to listen to his people.
Violence has continued to rage in Libya since an anti-government crackdown on demonstrations began on February 17. Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights watchdog, says that at least 295 people have been killed since violence began.
However, Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, said estimates of 1,000 dead were "credible". Frattini also said that the eastern province of Cyrenaica was no longer under Gaddafi's control.