TRIPOLI, LIBYA - Two U.S. warships were to pass through the Suez Canal on Wednesday heading toward Libya as Western nations sought to keep up pressure on Muammar Gaddafi to end a crackdown on a popular uprising and to step down.
The United States warned Libya could descend into civil war unless Gaddafi quits, amid fears that the most violent Arab revolt may grow bloodier and cause a humanitarian crisis.
But Gaddafi remained defiant and his son, Saif al-Islam, warned the West against launching military action and said the veteran ruler would not step down or go into exile.
Italy said it was sending a humanitarian mission to Tunisia to provide food and medical aid to as many as 10,000 people who had fled violence in neighboring Libya.
Tunisian border guards fired into the air on Tuesday to try to control a crowd of people clamoring to cross the frontier.
About 70,000 people have passed through the Ras Jdir border post in the past two weeks, and many more of the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in Libya are expected to follow.
"Using force against Libya is not acceptable. There's no reason, but if they want ... we are ready, we are not afraid,"Saif al-Islam told Sky television. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told U.S.
lawmakers: "Libya could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war." The United States said it was moving ships and planes closer to the oil-producing North African state.
The destroyer USS Barry moved through the Suez Canal on Monday and into the Mediterranean. Two amphibious assault ships, the USS Kearsarge, which can carry 2,000 Marines, and the USS Ponce, are in the Red Sea and are expected to go through the canal early on Wednesday.
U.S. RULES NOTHING OUT
The White House said the ships were being redeployed in preparation for possible humanitarian efforts but stressed it"was not taking any options off the table."
"We are looking at a lot of options and contingencies. No decisions have been made on any other actions," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe sounded a note of caution, saying military intervention would not happen without a clear United Nations mandate.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said Britain would work with allies on preparations for a no-fly zone in Libya, said it was unacceptable that "Colonel Gaddafi can be murdering his own people using airplanes and helicopter gunships."
General James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate hearing that imposing a no-fly zone would be a"challenging" operation. "You would have to remove air defence capability in order to establish a no-fly zone, so no illusions here," he said. "It would be a military operation."
Analysts said Western leaders were in no mood to rush into the conflict after drawn-out involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gaddafi, a survivor of past coup attempts, told the U.S. ABC network and the BBC on Monday: "All my people love me,"dismissing the significance of a rebellion that has ended his control over much of oil-rich eastern Libya.
REBELS SAY STRENGTH GROWING
Rebel fighters said the balance of the conflict was swinging their way. "Our strength is growing and we are getting more weapons. We are attacking checkpoints," said Yousef Shagan, a spokesman in Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) from Tripoli.
A rebel army officer in the eastern city of Ajdabiyah said rebel units were becoming more organized.
"All the military councils of Free Libya are meeting to form a unified military council to plan an attack on Gaddafi security units, militias and mercenaries," Captain Faris Zwei said. He said there were more than 10,000 volunteers in the city, plus defecting soldiers.
The New York Times reported that the rebels' revolutionary council was debating whether to ask for Western airstrikes on some of Gaddafi's military assets under a United Nations banner.
The Times said Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, the council's spokesman, declined to comment on its deliberations but said: "If it is with the United Nations, it is not a foreign intervention,"which the rebels have said they oppose.
The Times said there was no indication the U.N. Security Council would approve such a request, or that Libyans seeking to oust Gaddafi would welcome it.
Despite the widespread collapse of Gaddafi's writ, his forces were fighting back in some regions. A reporter on the Tunisian border saw Libyan troops reassert control at a crossing abandoned on Monday, and residents of Nalut, about 60 km (35 miles) from the border, said they feared pro-Gaddafi forces were planning to recapture the town.
Mohamed, a resident of rebel-held Misrata, told Reuters by phone: "Symbols of Gaddafi's regime have been swept away from the city. Only a (pro-Gaddafi) battalion remains at the city's air base but they appear to be willing to negotiate safe exit out of the air base. We are not sure if this is genuine or just a trick to attack the city again."
Across the country, tribal leaders, officials, military officers and army units have defected to the rebels. Sanctions will squeeze his access to funds.
Tripoli is a clear Gaddafi stronghold, but even in the capital, loyalties are divided. Many on the streets on Tuesday expressed loyalty but a man who described himself as a military pilot said: "One hundred percent of Libyans don't like him."
The U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday unanimously suspended Libya's membership of the U.N. Human Rights Council. A U.N. Security Council resolution on Saturday called for a freeze on Gaddafi's assets and a travel ban and refers his crackdown to the International Criminal Court.
The United States has frozen $30 billion in Libyan assets.
Libya's National Oil Corp said output had halved because of the departure of foreign workers. Brent crude prices surged above $116 a barrel as supply disruptions and the potential for more unrest in the Middle East and North Africa kept investors on edge.
Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, citing unnamed U.S. sources, said British special forces were preparing to seize mustard gas and other potential chemical weapons in Libya.
It quoted unnamed British sources as saying they had not yet received a specific U.S. request for involvement, but officials said plans were being drawn up for "every eventuality."