A war crimes prosecutor on Monday sought an arrest warrant for Muammar Gaddafi accusing him of killing protesters against his 41-year rule as NATO stepped up air strikes on Libyan forces.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, International Criminal Court prosecutor, also asked judges, who must now see if there is enough evidence to issue warrants, for the arrest of Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam and his spy chief brother-in-law Abdullah al-Senussi.
In the uprising, civilians were attacked at home, protests were suppressed using live ammunition, heavy artillery was used against funeral processions and snipers deployed to kill people leaving mosques after prayers, the prosecutor said.
"We have strong evidence, so strong evidence," Moreno-Ocampo said, adding: "We are almost ready for trial ... Gaddafi ruled Libya through fear and Libyans are losing that fear now."
The prosecutor's office had received calls from senior officials in the Gaddafi government in the past week to provide information. Prosecutors spoke with eyewitnesses to attacks and assessed evidence from 1,200 documents, plus videos and photos.
Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in the North African oil-producing desert state, the bloodiest of the revolts which have convulsed the Middle East in what has been called the "Arab Spring."
NATO, which has been hitting targets in Libya for nearly two months, appeared to step up its bombing campaign on Monday with strikes in several towns and cities including Tripoli, according to Libyan state television and rebels.
On the diplomatic front, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the United Nations was working on the removal of Gaddafi to exile to make way for a new government and a Libyan government delegation was expected in Moscow on Tuesday.
Libyan officials have denied killing civilians, saying instead they were forced to take action against criminal armed gangs and al Qaeda militants. They say a NATO bombing campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya's oil.
Moreno-Ocampo said persecution was still taking place in areas under Gaddafi control with forces arresting, imprisoning and torturing alleged dissidents. Some people had disappeared.
Prosecutors are also investigating reports of mass rapes, war crimes committed by different parties and attacks against sub-Saharan Africans wrongly seen as mercenaries once the Libyan situation developed into an armed conflict.
Moreno-Ocampo signaled his action earlier this month when he said he would seek three arrests for the "pre-determined" killing of protesters in Libya after the U.N. Security Council referred the violence to the Hague-based court in February.
Libyan officials have already denounced the ICC prosecutor's action, saying the court is a creation of the West for prosecuting African leaders.
Rebels welcomed the prosecutor's move.
"We have been impatiently waiting for such a decision. It is an important decision," said Belkacem, a rebel spokesman in the besieged city of Misrata. "Gaddafi hasn't stopped killing our brothers in all areas across Libya."
Libya is not a member of the ICC, but Moreno-Ocampo said Libyan authorities had primary responsibility to make arrests and that arrests are the best way to protect civilians.
The ICC has no police force and relies on member states to enforce arrests. Despite NATO bombing operations intended to protect civilians, Libya has been plunged into civil war, seriously complicating efforts to arrest ICC suspects.
"The request for these warrants is a reminder to all in Gaddafi's regime that crimes will not go unpunished and the reach of international justice will be long," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
Three months after a revolt began against Gaddafi's four-decade rule, fighting between rebels and government forces on several fronts has come to a near-standstill and Gaddafi is refusing to bow to efforts to force him from power.
DIPLOMATS SEARCH FOR SOLUTION
An inconclusive outcome to the civil war is likely to limit Libyan oil exports, keeping world prices high, and drive thousands more migrants to risk death trying to flee.
Italy's Frattini, asked about the possibility of arranging exile for Gaddafi, said: "If we talk about it now, we'll burn this possibility."
"We're obviously working with the United Nations on finding exactly this way out," he told Canale 5 television on Monday.
"A political way out that would remove the dictator and his family from the scene and allow the immediate creation of a government of national reconciliation," he said.
"I think if an agreement doesn't begin with Gaddafi and his immediate family leaving office it isn't going to fly with the opposition or with NATO," said David Hartwell, Middle East analyst with IHS Jane's, adding:
"The ICC warrant today also makes things more complicated."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Gaddafi envoys were expected in Moscow on Tuesday and Russia hoped to host Libyan rebel envoys soon.
NATO warplanes, acting under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, have stopped government troops advancing on rebel strongholds but the collapse of Gaddafi's rule, which many Western governments seek, has not materialized.
NATO HITS TRIPOLI, ZAWIYAH
State-run television in Libya reported on Monday that there were NATO strikes on Tripoli, the town of Zawiyah about 50 km (30 miles) west of the capital, the western Tripoli suburb of Tajoura, and on the town of Zuara, 120 km (80 miles) west of Tripoli.
In each case, according to television, strikes hit military and civilian targets and caused "material and human losses."
A rebel spokesman in the town of Zintan, in the Western mountains region south-west of Tripoli, told Reuters by telephone that NATO had been hitting government weapons depots about 30 km (20 miles) from the town.
"The strikes started at 2:00 a.m. and are still going on. They are sporadic. I'm hearing loud explosions," said the spokesman, called Abdulrahman.
After a series of air strikes on his Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Gaddafi taunted the Western military alliance, saying in an audio recording that he was in a place where NATO could not reach him.
NATO is broadcasting its own message to Gaddafi forces on Libyan army radio frequencies, telling them foreign mercenaries are raping the Libyan people and urging them to give up.
"Nobody has the right to make the lives of their people a living hell," says the broadcast, heard by Reuters on a Libyan army radio taken by rebels in the Western Mountains.
"Stop fighting against your own people," it continues, saying that the Libyan leadership has lost control and recruited non-Libyan mercenaries "and allowed them to rape your people."
(Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Tarek Amara and Sylvia Westall in Tunisia, Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Silvia Aloisi in Rome, Aaron Gray-Block in The Hague, Matt Falloon, Peter Apps and Adrian Croft in London, James Mackenzie in Rome, David Brunnstrom; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Giles Elgood)