WASHINGTON— The Obama administration on Tuesday condemned "appalling" violence in Libya, where security forces are unleashing a bloody crackdown on protesters demanding the ouster of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.
"This violence is completely unacceptable," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.
But as it sought to safely extricate U.S. diplomats and other Americans from the violence spreading around Libya, Washington stopped short of criticizing Gadhafi personally or demanding that he step down.
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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 Gadhafi a terrorist sponsor.
U.S. officials renewed calls for Gadhafi'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.
Gadhafi delivered a defiant speech on national television in which he vowed not to step down and die a martyr's death fighting those rebelling against his more than four-decade regime.
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 expected 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 non-essential staff and family members of personnel at the U.S. embassy in Libya out of the country. They were ordered to leave on Monday but have not yet been able to leave, he said. In addition, there are several thousand dual U.S.-Libyan nationals and about 600 U.S. citizens now believed to be in Libya.
Asked about Gadhafi'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 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 Gadhafi's regime 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.
Meanwhile, top lawmakers said the U.S. should consider imposing new sanctions on the regime and called for foreign energy companies to immediately shut down operations in the oil-rich North African nation.