Martial Trezzini, AP Photo/Keystone
GENEVA — The U.N.'s top human rights official warned Friday that mass killings in Libya, possibly of thousands, require the world to "step in vigorously" and immediately end a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in the North African country.
As Libya faces growing diplomatic pressure from around the world, the U.N. High Commissioner spoke with the most urgency yet by a U.N. official, citing estimates that thousands may have died at the hands of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's security forces, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity.
"The crackdown in Libya of peaceful demonstrations is escalating alarmingly with reported mass killings, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of protesters," Navi Pillay told the U.N. Human Rights Council during a daylong emergency meeting. "Tanks, helicopters and military aircraft have reportedly been used indiscriminately to attack the protesters. According to some sources, thousands may have been killed or injured."
Diplomats on the 47-nation council debated whether to call for Libya's ouster from the council, in what would be an unprecedented suspension of one of its own members. It will also decide whether to heed Pillay's call for an independent U.N.-led probe of abuses in Libya.
It was only last May that the former U.S. enemy was elected to the Geneva-based body as part of a series of attempts at political rehabilitation on the world stage.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also was to meet with the powerful U.N. Security Council later Friday in New York to consider possible sanctions against Libya.
European nations were leading the effort to condemn Gadhafi's regime that has ruled for 42 years but now appears to have lost control of large parts of the country.
"The world is watching you, the world will hold you to account," British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters Friday, referring to Gadhafi's regime. "International justice has a long reach and a long memory."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a statement on Friday that Libya must not be allowed any "further exacerbation of the situation, the destruction of the civilian population." It is the Kremlin's strongest criticism yet of Libya.
Pillay reminded the council that Gadhafi had urged his supporters to battle protesters and "attack them in their lairs."
"Any official, at any level, ordering or carrying out atrocities and attacks can be held criminally accountable," she said.
It is the first time that the Geneva-based council has held a special session to scrutinize one of its members. Libya's ambassador did not attend, but some of its allies spoke out against sudden measures to punish Gadhafi.
Nigeria and China were among those who condemned the violence but rejected the call to suspend Libya from the council.
Pakistan's ambassador, Zamir Akram, said the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference "strongly condemn the excessive use of force" in Libya.
"Muslims will no longer tolerate inequalities and injustice," he told the council. "A new dawn has come. The rules of the game have changed. Those who do not embrace it will be swept away."
Akram made no mention of supporting Libya's suspension from the council.
Also Friday, a Paris-based Libyan official said Libya's ambassadors to France and to the U.N. cultural and education organization UNESCO had quit Friday, the latest Libyan official of abandon the regime.
Gadhafi's response to the uprising in his country has been the harshest by any Arab leader in the wave of protests that has swept the Middle East recently, toppling the presidents of Libya's neighbors Egypt and Tunisia.
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