The United States offered "any kind of assistance" to help Libya's rebel forces overthrow the regime of defiant leader Muammar Gaddafi on Sunday, as anti-government forces chanting, "Free, free Libya," massed in a city outside Tripoli ready for an expected offensive.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed Gaddafi to step down and call off his mercenary forces.
"We've been reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east and as the revolution moves westward there as well," Clinton said. "I think it's way too soon to tell how this is going to play out, but we're going to be ready and prepared to offer any kind of assistance that anyone wishes to have from the United States."
Clinton's offer of assistance to opposition forces comes a day after U.S. President Barack Obama called on Gaddafi to leave power immediately, saying that after his violent crackdown he had lost the legitimacy to rule.
Officials from the Obama administration met with European and other allied governments Sunday to discuss plans for a potential no-fly zone over Libya in an effort to halt the killing of civilians by Gaddafi and his forces. No decision has yet been made on implementing a no-fly zone, reports the New York Times.
U.S. Sens. John McCain and Joseph Lieberman said on Sunday the United States should enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and fully support the opposition forces. Lieberman called on Washington to arm rebel forces who have taken control in the east. The United States, he said, should arm a provisional government "to fight on behalf of the people of Libya against a really cruel dictator."
Italy suspended a 2008 so-called friendship treaty with Libya, making it easier for Rome to participate in potential peacekeeping missions in the north African nation, reports the Wall Street Journal. Suspension of the treaty will also enable the use of Italy's military bases in the case of an intervention.
Italy said it suspended the treaty because the state of Libya no longer exists.
“We signed the friendship treaty with a state, but when the counterpart no longer exists — in this case the Libyan state — the treaty cannot be applied,” Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, told the New York Times Sunday.
Meanwhile, an Associated Press reporter who reached Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, confirmed Sunday that anti-Gaddafi rebels were in control of the city center.
They had deployed army tanks and anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks, according to the reporter, but were surrounded by pro-Gaddafi forces, also backed by tanks and anti-aircraft guns.
By all reports, Gaddafi still holds the most of Tripoli, which is home to 2 million of Libya's 6.5 million people. On Sunday, state banks began handing out the equivalent of $400 per family in an effort to boost support for Gaddafi in the capital.
But Zawiya, a town of 200,000 close to an oil port and refineries, is the nearest population center to Tripoli to fall into the opposition hands. Police stations and government offices inside the city have been torched and anti-Gaddafi graffiti was everywhere. Many buildings are pockmarked by bullets.
Gaddafi has launched by far the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of anti-regime uprisings sweeping the Arab world.
Aid workers are warning that the exodus from Libya has caused a crisis at the border with Tunisia. About 20,000 people were stranded at the Tunisian border and in need of food and shelter, reports the BBC. Tunisian authorities can no longer handle the influx of refugees, according to U.N. officials.
"They've been accommodating people in shelters, schools and places of their own. But we're now aware of the fact that they're very much stretched and they need the support of the international community," said Liz Eyster of UNHCR, the United Nation's refugee agency.
The United Nations estimates that about 100,000 people have fled the violence in the past week.
Another person who has reportedly fled Libya this weekend is Gaddafi's alleged lover, Ukrainian nurse Galyna Kolotnytska. She returned to Ukraine early Sunday morning on a plane with other Ukrainian evacuees.
A U.S. diplomatic cable described the 38-year-old divorced nurse as a "voluptuous blonde" who always traveled with Gaddafi. Despite rumors of an affair, the nurse has insisted her relationship with the dictator has been strictly professional.
The U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on Libya and issued a travel ban on Gaddafi, his family and his officials over the weekend. The United States and Britain imposed their own sanctions, too.
The White House said Sunday that in a conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama stated “that when a leader's only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now."
Until Saturday, U.S. officials had held back from openly backing the protest movement, insisting that it was for the Libyan people to determine whether or not Gaddafi should leave office and the country.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi's son rejected the president's call and repeated assertions he made Friday that the number of deaths at the hands of pro-Gaddafi forces during the 10-day uprising had been exaggerated.
"Listen, nobody is leaving this country," said Seif al-Islam Gaddafi in an interview with ABC's Christiane Amanpour. "We live here, we die here."
When Amanpour asked him specifically about Obama's call for a new Libyan government, the younger Gaddafi said: "It's not an American business, that's number one. Second, do they think this is a solution? Of course not."
There is a "big big gap between reality and the media reports" Gaddafi, once seen as a successor to Muammar, told Amanpour. "The whole south is calm. The west is calm. The middle is calm. Even part of the east."
However, GlobalPost's Nichole Sobecki reported Saturday from Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, that opposition forces were in full control and had been largely successful in maintaining law and order.
Volunteers had taken over the former internal security building and courthouse, organizing the town’s security, cleaning up, providing food, assisting foreign journalists and beginning the long road toward good governance, Sobecki wrote.
The only gunfire on the streets was in celebration, uniformed traffic police direct traffic in the center of town and a few of the city’s banks had reopened.
"For 42 years we were kept alive-dead," Hana Kahlig, a human rights organizer volunteering at the courthouse, told Sobecki. "We didn't have freedom of speech, education is below zero. He [Gaddafi] treated us like cockroaches, forcing us to live without lights or water. Now we want to live with freedom, just like everyone else."
In Zawiya on Sunday, chants of "Gaddafi Out," and "Free, Free Libya," were heard, according to the AP. Graffiti read: "Down with Gadhafi, the mass murderer," and an effigy of Gaddafi hung from a light pole in the city's main square with the words "Execute Gadhafi" emblazoned on its chest.
Before Zawiya fell to rebel forces, Gaddafi scolded the city residents on Thursday, accusing Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda of using hallucinogenic drugs to incite unrest.
"Shame on you, people of Zawiya. Control your children," he reportedly said. "They are loyal to bin Laden." And: "What do you have to do with bin Laden, people of Zawiya? They are exploiting young people ... I insist it is bin Laden."
— Freya Petersen, Hanna Ingber Win