The United Nations Security Council
The United Nations Security Council at the UN headquarters in New York on April 16, 2010. Photo by Reuters
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UN Security Council diplomats clashed on Saturday over a proposal to refer the deadly crackdown against anti-government demonstrators in Libya to the International Criminal Court, council envoys said.

While there was broad support for a draft resolution of sanctions to punish long-time Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and others of the North African country's ruling elite for attacks that have killed thousands of civilians, countries appeared split over whether to refer the issue to the rarely-used war crimes court.

Diplomats said ICC members Portugal and Brazil, as well non-members India and China, were actively opposing an immediate referral and preferred language that just leaves the door open to bringing Libya to the ICC.

It was unclear whether the call for an immediate ICC referral would be cut to get unanimous agreement on the other draft's other punitive measures.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, Libya's UN delegation, which has denounced Gaddafi, sent a letter to the president of the Security Council, Brazilian U.N. Ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, confirming its support for an immediate ICC referral.

Libyan UN Ambassador Abdurrahman Shalgam wrote to Viotti that his mission "supports the measures proposed in the draft resolution to hold to account those responsible for the armed attacks against the Libyan civilians, including through the International Criminal Court."

The 15-nation council has referred only one other case to the ICC - the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region. The court has indicted Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide and other crimes against humanity in Darfur.

France and Germany have been lobbying hard to immediately bring the Libyan violence to the ICC, based in The Hague.

Permanent veto-wielding council members the United States, Russia and China are not members of ICC and view the permanent war-crimes tribunal with suspicion. Diplomats said privately that Moscow and Washington can live with or without the ICC referral in the resolution.

The UN Security Council met in an urgent session Saturday to consider sanctions to punish Libya for violent attacks against anti-government protesters as the international community pressured leader Muammar Gadhafi to halt the crackdown on his people.

The sanctions under consideration at Saturday's session included an arms embargo against the Libyan government and a travel ban and an asset freeze directed at Gadhafi, his relatives and key regime members.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged council members to take immediate action to protect civilians in Libya where some estimates indicate more than 1,000 people have been killed in less than two weeks.

Many people in Tripoli and other areas where Gadhafi remains in control cannot leave their homes for fear of being shot.

"In these circumstances, the loss of time means more loss of lives," the UN chief said Friday.

The major sticking point in council deliberations was the language in the proposed resolution that refers the violent crackdown in Libya to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for investigation of possible crimes against humanity.

The sanctions considered do not include a no-fly zone over Libya and no UN-sanctioned military action was planned. NATO has also ruled out any intervention in Libya.

Backers of the proposal circulated by France, Germany, Britain and the United States insist the language is necessary, but diplomats speaking on background said Portugal was worried that the referral could endanger Portuguese citizens still inside Libya.

In Washington, the White House on Friday announced sweeping new sanctions and temporarily abandoned its embassy in Tripoli as a final flight carrying American citizens left the embattled capital.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley hit at Gadhafi in a Twitter posting Saturday.

"Despite Qaddafi's hardly sober claim that the protesters are on drugs, the people of Libya are clear-eyed in their demand for change," he tweeted.

The Security Council met Saturday for the second time in two days. On Friday, Libya's ambassador to the UN beseeched the council to help halt the deadly attacks that his once-close comrade Gadhafi has unleashed on his critics.

"I hope that within hours, not days, they can do something tangible, effective to stop what they are doing there — Gadhafi and his sons — against our people," Ambassador Mohamed Shalgham said after addressing the council.

A nonviolent revolt against Gadhafi's four-decade-old rule began Feb. 15 amid a wave of uprisings in the Arab world and most of the country's eastern half is controlled by rebels. Witnesses say Gadhafi's government has responded by shooting at protesters in numerous cities.

On Friday, for the second time this week, the Security Council called for "an immediate end to the violence," expressing grave concern at the deteriorating situation, particularly "reports of civilian casualties on a very large scale."

In Geneva on Friday, the UN Human Rights Council called for an investigation into possible crimes against humanity in Libya and recommended Libya's suspension from membership of the world body's top human rights body.