U.S. President Barack Obama has condemned the violence that has gripped Libya, saying the government of the North African country must be held accountable.

"The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous," Obama said Wednesday in Washington, D.C., in his first comments since unrest began in Libya on Feb. 18.

The regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has responded to anti-government protests, which followed the toppling of governments of Tunisia and Egypt, with a heavy crackdown. Italy's foreign minister reports at least 1,000 protesters have been killed by Gadhafi's forces in recent days.

"This violence must stop," Obama demanded.

He hinted at the possibility of sanctions against the Libyan regime.

"The entire world is watching. We will co-ordinate our assistance and accountability measures with the international community," he said.

Obama said he is sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Geneva for international negotiations to try to stop the clashes in Libya.

While global outrage grew over Libya's violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrations, protesters gained ground, reportedly seizing control of a major city in the country's west for the first time.

Misurata would be the first major city in the west to fall to anti-government forces. After a week of upheaval, protesters backed by defecting army units have claimed control over almost the entire eastern half of Libya's 1,600-kilometre Mediterranean coast, including several oil-producing areas.

Possible sanctions

Earlier Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that "a lot of options are under review — sanctions, other options."

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The U.S. is said to be considering a range of options to help stop the violence in Libya, including freezing the overseas assets of the Libyan government, declaring a no-fly zone over Libya, which it used effectively over northern Iraq, as well as international or bilateral sanctions.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy also pressed Wednesday for European Union sanctions against Libya's regime because of its violent crackdown, and raised the possibility of cutting all economic and business ties between the EU and Libya.

"The continuing brutal and bloody repression against the Libyan civilian population is revolting," Sarkozy said in a statement. "The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights."

On Tuesday, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting that ended with a statement condemning the crackdown, expressing "grave concern" and calling for an "immediate end to the violence" and steps to address the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.

Foreigners are fleeing the violence in Libya, including 26 Canadians who left on an American boat Wednesday.

A turbulent past

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In 1969, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, then 27, led a successful coup against King Idris I. Gadhafi abolished the 1951 constitution and ruled along with a 12-member Revolutionary Command Council.

In the 1980s, Gadhafi and Libya were responsible for a number of notorious incidents. In 1986, after the U.S. blamed Libya for a bombing in a Berlin disco that killed two American servicemen, President Ronald Reagan ordered airstrikes against Tripoli.

In 1988, a bomb blew up a Pan American 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Later investigations tied that bombing and the bombing of a French DC-10 over Niger that killed 170 to Libya.

In August 2003, Libya agreed to take responsibility for the actions of its agents in the Lockerbie bombing and paid $2.7 billion US to the families of the victims.

Clashes intensify

In Libya, forces loyal to Gadhafi opened fire again in the streets of Libya's capital Tripoli Wednesday, a day after the longtime leader vowed to defend his rule.

Meanwhile, Libya's ex- justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil told a Swedish newspaper Wednesday: "I have proof that Gadhafi gave the order about Lockerbie." He didn't describe the proof.

Abdel-Jalil stepped down as justice minister to protest the violence against anti-government demonstrations.

He told Expressen that Gadhafi gave the order to Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground.

The fighting in Tripoli on Wednesday came a day after Gadhafi gave a speech calling on supporters to crack down on anti-government protesters. The opposition reportedly seized control of Misurata, with witnesses saying people were honking their horns and raising pre-Gadhafi flags from the monarchy to celebrate.

New videos posted by Libya's opposition on Facebook also showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the flag from the pre-Gadhafi monarchy on a building in Zawiya, on the outskirts of Tripoli.

Another showed protesters lining up cement blocks and setting tires ablaze to fortify positions on a square inside the capital. The footage couldn't be independently confirmed.

In a televised speech that served as an all-out call for his backers to impose control over the capital and take back other cities, Gadhafi defiantly vowed to fight to his "last drop of blood" and roared at supporters to strike back against Libyan protesters to defend his embattled regime.

With files from The Associated Press