TRIPOLI, Libya - International pressure on Moammar Gadhafi to end his crackdown on opponents escalated yesterday as his loyalists closed in on rebel-held cities closest to the capital. The United States moved naval and air forces closer to Libya and said all options were open, including the use of warplanes to patrol the North African nation's skies and protect Libyans threatened by their leader.
France said it would start flying aid to the opposition-controlled eastern half of the country. The European Union imposed an arms embargo and other sanctions, following the lead of the United States and the UN. The EU was also considering the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya. And the United States and Europe were freezing billions of dollars in Libya's foreign assets.
"Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to govern, and it is time for him to go without further violence or delay," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. "No option is off the table. That of course includes a no-fly zone," she added.
Gadhafi, who has launched the most brutal crackdown of any Arab regime facing a wave of popular uprisings, laughed off a question from ABC News about whether he would step down as the Obama administration has demanded.
"My people love me. They would die for me," he said. ABC reported that Gadhafi invited the UN or any other organization to come on a fact-finding mission.
The turmoil in the oil-rich nation roiled markets for another day. Libya's oil chief said production had been cut by about 50 percent, reducing supplies that go primarily to Europe.
The uprising that began Feb. 15 has posed the most serious challenge to Gadhafi in his more than four decades in power. His bloody crackdown has left hundreds, and perhaps thousands, dead. But clashes appear to have eased considerably over the past few days after planeloads of foreign journalists arrived in the capital at the government's invitation.
The two sides are entrenched, and the direction the uprising takes next could depend on which can hold out longest. Gadhafi is dug in in Tripoli and nearby cities, backed by his elite security forces and militiamen who are generally better armed than the military.
His opponents, holding the east and much of the country's oil infrastructure, also control pockets in western Libya near Tripoli. They are backed by mutinous army units, but those forces appear to have limited supplies of ammunition and weapons.
Gadhafi opponents have moved to consolidate their hold in the east, centered on Benghazi - Libya's second-largest city, where the uprising began. Politicians there on Sunday set up their first leadership council to manage day-to-day affairs, taking a step toward forming what could be an alternative to Gadhafi's regime.
Yesterday, pro-Gadhafi forces retook control of the border crossings with Tunisia in the west after they had fallen under opposition control and bombed an ammunition depot in the rebel-held east, residents in the area said. The Libyan Defense Ministry denied the bombing.