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The United States said on Wednesday it was looking at imposing sanctions on Libya to punish it for a violent crackdown on protesters, balancing tougher rhetoric with efforts to safely evacuate Americans.

“We’re looking at a full range of tools and options,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “That certainly includes looking at sanctions that could be imposed.”

President Barack Obama “strongly condemned” the violence in Libya and would address the situation in the oil-producing North African country on Wednesday or Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

In the meantime, Washington would continue to work with the United Nations in reviewing various options, he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for Europe to suspend all economic ties with Libya and to adopt sanctions.

But diplomats and analysts say that getting international agreement on sanctions would be protracted and possibly unsuccessful, making it more likely that countries such as the United States would have to go it alone.

Mr. Crowley said Washington was looking at the possibility of freezing Libyan assets, including those of its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, but no decision had been made yet.

Mr. Crowley’s comments marked the toughest U.S. response to date on the bloodshed in Libya in which hundreds of people are reported to have been killed by security forces backed by tanks and warplanes.

U.S. officials suggested the earlier muted U.S. response to the violence was due to fears that Gaddafi could retaliate against U.S. citizens in Libya.

The State Department said it had begun processing Americans in Tripoli for evacuation to Malta aboard a chartered ferry with room for about 600 passengers.

The ferry was due to leave Tripoli in the early afternoon local time but State Department officials did not respond to calls and e-mails asking whether it had left yet.

The U.S. government estimates there are several thousand Americans living in Libya. Most hold dual citizenship with about 600 carrying U.S. passports only.

While some European leaders have condemned Gaddafi, Obama – the first U.S. leader to meet the Libyan leader – has made no comments in public so far.

Some analysts see this is a deliberate tactic, while others have been sharply critical and say he should adopt a more muscular stance.

The U.S. government began lifting its trade embargo and wide sanctions regime against Libya in 2004, after Tripoli abandoned efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and opened its territory to international weapons inspectors.

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