Turkey escalates pressure, tells Gadhafi to withdraw, leave Libya

Turkey has escalated the pressure on Moammar Gadhafi despite its long-standing ties to the Libyan leader, with its prime minister insisting Gadhafi must immediately leave “for the sake of his country’s future.”

Workers participate in a May Day rally marching with photos of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi through the streets of San Salvador

Workers participate in a May Day rally marching with photos of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi through the streets of San Salvador

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey has escalated the pressure on Moammar Gadhafi despite its long-standing ties to the Libyan leader, with its prime minister insisting Gadhafi must immediately leave “for the sake of his country’s future.”

Gadhafi has ignored calls for change in Libya and instead preferred “blood, tears and pressure against his own people,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference in Istanbul on Tuesday.

“We wish that the Libyan leader immediately withdraw from the administration and leave Libya for his own sake and the sake of his country’s future without leading to further destruction, tears and bloodshed,” Erdogan said.

He said if Gadhafi did take such a step, diplomats would arrange for his safety and for his departure to a country that will host him. Erdogan did not say whether any country was ready to accept Gadhafi in exile.

Turkish leaders had previously gently urged Gadhafi to meet demands for change from the rebellious opposition, then suggested that he step down. But Erdogan’s comments Tuesday were his strongest public message to Gadhafi yet.

Erdogan said Gadhafi, who lost his second youngest son and three of his grandchildren Saturday in a NATO bombing, must be suffering from “great grief” but must understand that the Libyan people are also suffering under his attacks.

“We want to remind that the Libyan people feel the same grief and urge him to feel their pain and take this inevitable step to prevent further pain,” Erdogan said.

NATO said the attack Saturday targeted one of the regime’s command and control centres. Gadhafi and his wife were in the compound at the time but escaped unharmed, Libyan officials said, accusing the alliance of trying to assassinate the Libyan leader.

NATO officials have denied they are hunting Gadhafi to break the battlefield stalemate between Gadhafi’s troops and rebels trying for the past 10 weeks to depose him. Rebels largely control eastern Libya, while Gadhafi has clung to much of the west, including the capital, Tripoli.

“I want to make it clear and want to repeat what was said, that we don’t target individuals,” Italian Navy Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri said on Tuesday.

“So what NATO bombarded was surely an installation from where Gadhafi or his men were able to conduct or guide his forces towards attacking the civilian population,” Veri said at the operation’s headquarters in Naples.

Veri said NATO will keep up the pressure on Gadhafi’s regime as long as it takes to end the violence in Libya.

After disrupting the regime’s ground forces on the front lines, NATO was now focusing on cutting Gadhafi’s lines of communications with his troops, he said.

The bombing of Libya by a U.S.-led international force started seven weeks ago. NATO took over command of aerial operations at the end of March. Since then, neither government troops nor the opposition forces have made significant territorial gains.

But Veri dismissed criticisms that the conflict was now a stalemate that could go on indefinitely.

The mission is a deliberate mission and therefore takes time,“ he said. ”Every day something positive happens.“

On Monday, Turkey temporarily closed its embassy in Tripoli due to deteriorating security and its staff were evacuated to Tunisia, a move that came a day after vandals attacked and burned the British and Italian embassies and a U.N. office there. The U.N. has withdrawn its international staff.

The Turkish consulate in the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi remains open.

Turkey initially balked at the idea of military action in Libya, but as a NATO member it is helping to enforce an arms embargo on Libya and volunteered to lead humanitarian aid efforts.

Last month, Erdogan proposed a peace plan for Libya, urging forces loyal to Gadhafi to withdraw from besieged cities and calling for the establishment of humanitarian aid corridors and comprehensive democratic change.

Turkey has vast trade interests in Libya. Turkish companies have been involved in lucrative construction projects worth billions of dollars, building hospitals, shopping malls and five-star hotels there before the uprising began.

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Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.