WASHINGTON — The Obama administration stands ready to offer "any type of assistance" to Libyans seeking to oust Moammar Gadhafi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday, adding a warning to other African nations not to let mercenaries go to the aid of the long-time dictator.
Clinton made no mention of any U.S. military assistance in her remarks to reporters before flying to Geneva for talks with diplomats from Russia, the European Union and other powers eager to present a united anti-Gadhafi front.
Shortly before she left, two senators urged the administration to help arm a provisional government in Libya, where Gadhafi is in the midst of the desperate and increasingly violent bid to retain power.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, also called for the United States and its allies to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the military from again firing on civilian protestors from the air.
The White House had no immediate comment on their recommendations.
Clinton spoke to reporters one day after President Barack Obama branded Gadhafi an illegitimate ruler who must leave power immediately. The U.N. Security Council announced new penalties against the Gadhafi government, in power since 1969 in the oil-rich nation along Africa's Mediterranean Coast.
"We've been reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east," the secretary of state said of efforts to form a provisional government in the eastern part of the country where the rebellion began at midmonth.
She added, "We are ready and prepared to offer any type of assistance."
The U.S., she said, is threatening more measures against Gadhafi's government, but did not say what they were or when they might be announced.
Addressing the rulers of unnamed neighboring countries, she said, "You must stop mercenaries and those going to Libya to commit violence and other criminal acts."
The African fighters that Gadhafi is allegedly using against protesters come from several nations.
Clinton's remarks did not go as far as those of McCain or Lieberman.
"Libyan pilots aren't going to fly if there is a no-fly zone and we could get air assets there to ensure it," McCain said. But he added, "I'm not ready to use ground forces or further intervention than that."
He said the U.S. should "recognize some provisional government that they are trying to set already up in the eastern part of Libya, help them with material assistance, make sure that every one of the mercenaries know that any acts they commit they will find themselves in front a war crimes tribunal. Get tough."
Lieberman spoke in similar terms, urging "tangible support, (a) no-fly zone, recognition of the revolutionary government, the citizens government and support for them with both humanitarian assistance and I would provide them with arms."
He likened the situation in Libya to the events in the Balkans in the 1990s when he said the U.S. "intervened to stop a genocide against Bosnians. And the first we did was to provide them the arms to defend themselves. That's what I think we ought to do in Libya."
McCain and Lieberman spoke on CNN's "State of the Union" from Egypt, where a largely peaceful popular uprising recently toppled President Hosni Mubarak from power after a reign of nearly three decades.
It was one of numerous rebellions across Northern Africa and the Middle East in recent months, all of them far less violent than the events in Libya, where Gadhafi has used his military and foreign mercenaries to try and crush a revolt and has threatened to begin arming Libyans who support his rule.
The rebellion began Feb. 15 in Benghazi, where a member of the city council said on Sunday that an ex-justice minister was appointed to lead a provisional government for cities under rebel control.
McCain and Lieberman also said Obama was slow to react to Gadhafi's brutal response to the protests. The administration has said the president did not want to risk any attack on Americans who had been trying to leave the country, and waited until a ferry loaded with evacuees reached Malta after spending two days in the harbor at Tripoli, the capital, because of bad weather.
"The British prime minister and the French president and others were not hesitant and they have citizens in that country," said McCain, who also appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Lieberman said he understood why the administration hesitated, but added, "I wish we had spoken out much more clearly and early against the Gadhafi regime."