Thousands of jubilant Libyans danced and cheered in the streets of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant Monday for Moammar Gadhafi, accusing him of crimes against humanity for killing civilians who rose up against his rule.
The court order raised pressure on the Gadhafi regime, already targeted by daily airstrikes, and NATO clearly hopes it will encourage key allies to abandon him. But it also gives Gadhafi less incentive to accept a peaceful settlement that would see him leave power -- something he has shown no indication of doing -- because of the subsequent threat of arrest.
The court in The Hague, Netherlands, lacks police powers, and the force most likely to arrest Gadhafi appears to be the rebels battling to oust him.
At the United Nations, political affairs chief B. Lynn Pascoe said the rebels now hold a tenuous military advantage over Gadhafi's forces. The rebels have failed to penetrate the Libyan leader's center of power in Tripoli and conceded Monday they are unlikely to detain Gadhafi.
Warrants were also issued for Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, whom he has groomed as his successor, and for Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanoussi. All three men were accused of orchestrating the killing, injuring, arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of civilians during the first 12 days of an uprising to topple Gadhafi from power and for trying to cover up their alleged crimes.
Presiding Judge Sanji Monageng of Botswana said Gadhafi had "absolute, ultimate and unquestioned control" over his country's military and security forces. She said prosecutors presented evidence showing that following uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Gadhafi and his inner circle plotted a "state policy aimed at deterring and quelling by any means -- including by the use of lethal force -- demonstrations by civilians against the regime."
Hundreds of civilians were killed, injured or arrested, and there were "reasonable grounds to believe" that Gadhafi and his son were both responsible for the murder and persecution of civilians, she said.
Gadhafi's regime rejected the court's authority and dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
"This court is nothing but a cover for the military operations of NATO," said Justice Minister Mohammed al-Qamudi. Hours after the arrest warrants were announced, dozens of pro-government supporters stormed the grounds of a Tripoli hotel, where foreign journalists are required to stay, chanting slogans in support of the leader who has held power since 1969. Defiant bursts of gunfire rang out across the capital into the evening.