World leaders will meet Friday to discuss sanctions against Libya as nations braved rough seas to whisk citizens away from the escalating violence in the north African nation.
A British ship left Benghazi -- the second-largest city -- with 207 people on board. A United States ferry with at least 275 people safely onboard was expected to follow suit later Friday.
The State Department said that the ferry's departure from Tripoli to Malta would be within the "next several hours" depending on the weather.
Dena Drotar said her mother, who was on the U.S. ship, told her that passengers were being fed, but were anxious and having difficulty sleeping.
"So they're also getting a little bit giddy," Drotar said.
As the standoff between protesters and the nation's long-term ruler, Moammar Ghadafi, continued, unrest seemed to be spreading toward Tripoli. The capital has been a government stronghold, and has managed to quash the protesters calling for the ruler to step down.
The coastal town of Zawiya -- about 55 kilometers (35 miles) west of Tripoli -- was the epicenter of violent protests Thursday. Doctors at a field hospital said early Friday that 17 people were killed and 150 more wounded when government forces attacked.
Gunfire erupted as throngs marched down city streets chanting "Allahu Akbar," (God is Great) while they carried a body wrapped in white sheets.
Anti-government forces said they had gained control of the city, prompting Ghadafi to accuse followers of Osama bin Laden of adding hallucinogenic drugs to residents' drinks to spark the unrest.
"They put it with milk or with other drinks, spiked drinks," he said. After taking the tablets, "they attack this police station or that one so they can steal from there the criminal records."
Gadhafi called for the al Qaeda leader to be prosecuted.
"He's responsible for any acts of murder or sabotage," he said Thursday. "How can such lunatic youth cause such anarchy?"
Ghadafi sent condolences to the victims' families , and urged the protesters' mothers to track them down and take them home.
"These are our children," he said in an address to Zawiya residents. "We are quite upset about the senseless loss of lives."
A resident of Tripoli who said she was too afraid to give her name called Gadhafi's speech "crazy."
"We're all in our houses like we're sitting in jail," she said. "We can't go outside or we get shot. We hear the bullets."
Gadhafi said Libya has peaceful ways for its citizens to address their grievances.
"We are not like Egypt or Tunisia," he said, referring to two countries that have ousted their leaders in recent weeks. "Here, the authority is in the hands of the people. You can change your authority, just make committees. And if you think they are corrupt, take them to court."
As violence occurred elsewhere Thursday, a formerly pro-government newspaper in Libya reported that mercenaries were shooting unarmed civilians in Tajura, about 25 miles east of Tripoli.
CNN could not confirm reports for many areas in Libya. The Libyan government maintains tight control of communications and has not responded to repeated requests for access to the country. CNN has interviewed numerous witnesses by phone.
Gadhafi faces international pressure as protests escalate. The U.N. Human Rights Council will meet Friday afternoon to discuss a resolution that would include suspending Libya from the council. The resolution would condemn "the massive and unacceptable violence currently being perpetrated in this country," French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Thursday.
The Russian foreign ministry said early Friday that sanctions against Libya will be ineffective.
"While (sanctions) might work in some situations, you can hardly say that they are an effective method of international action," the foreign ministry said.
The international fallout has spread as the protests rage on.
Switzerland has ordered Ghadafi's assets frozen, the foreign ministry said.
A stream of Libyan diplomats have also defected over the unrest, including the ambassador to Jordan, Mohammed Hassan Al Barghathi.
A cousin of Gadhafi who serves as a top security official and is considered one of his closest aides also resigned.
Underscoring the growing distance between the Gadhafi regime and Libyan diplomats, the flag hanging outside the Libyan Mission to the United Nations in New York was the opposition flag; the regime's flag had been taken down.
However, state television reported that Libyan diplomats and staff in Saudi Arabia had sent a cable of support "paying their respective loyalty to the leader of Libya."