The United States suspended operations Friday at its embassy in Libya after U.S. diplomatic personnel were airlifted out of the country aboard a chartered airliner that left a military airfield near Tripoli on Friday morning. Officials say, however, that diplomatic contacts with representatives of the Moammar Gadhafi government continue.
They stress, though, that the move does not amount to a break in diplomatic relations with Libya, and that contact continues with Libyan government officials, including Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, with the hope of influencing Libyan behavior.
Under-Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told reporters the decision to suspend operations at the Tripoli post was made Thursday, amid increasing gunfire in the city and that the last 19 U.S. diplomats were told to join the evacuation flight.
"We will execute, always, due prudence when we engage in diplomatic activities," said Kennedy. "We’re there to represent the United States. We’re there to advance our economic interests. We’re there to assist and protect American citizens. But when the situation becomes significantly insecure, it is at that point prudent to continue our diplomatic activities with a country via other means."
A senior official who spoke to reporters said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, who is consulting with U.S. allies in Europe, spoke by telephone Friday with Kusa, and that contacts will continue as a means of persuading authorities to stop the violence.
The Libyan embassy in Washington remains open, though Ambassador Ali Aujali said he has resigned, and denounced the Gadhafi government as "criminal" for its attacks on civilians.
State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley repeated White House comments that the U.S. administration believes Gadhafi has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of his people because of the crackdown on protestors.
But Crowley said from a legal standpoint, Gadhafi still is head of state and that whether he should remain in power should be decided by the Libyans themselves and not the United States or other outside parties.
U.S. critics of administration policy say the White House should be explicitly calling for Gadhafi’s ouster.
In an open letter to President Barack Obama Friday, a bipartisan group of conservative former government officials and foreign policy analysts said the United States and allies have a "moral interest" in both an end to the violence, and an end to the "murderous Libyan regime."
Jamie Fly, a signatory and executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, told VOA that if the United States doesn’t take more urgent action, it will send the wrong message to the people of Libya and the wider region.
"The first step is helping to push him from power, and so that’s going to involve limiting access to the outside world, moving military assets into place to insure that the Libyan regime can’t use the Libyan military against the citizens anymore. But beyond that, it’s going to be a significant commitment required by the U.S. and other allies just because of the humanitarian concerns that are already developing."
Fly minimized the impact of a U.S.-led drive to expel Libya from the U.N. Human Rights Council, saying the besieged Gadhafi could hardly be concerned about council membership at this point.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to join a ministerial-level meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, which aides said will be a vehicle for broader consultations with key U.S. allies on the Libya situation.