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 on their own.
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 popular 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. "The ICC does not really mean anything for us Libyans because we are not party to it and because it's merely a political tool for exerting pressure and political blackmail against sovereign countries. ... It has become clear that it's a tool of imperialism."
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.
By contrast, thousands of Libyans poured into Liberty Square in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, with women ululating and dancing and several men shooting celebratory gunfire in the air. The square echoed with chants of: "The blood of the martyrs will not be wasted" and "Freedom is here. Today we win."
Benghazi resident Mohammed al-Nazeif, 35, said the warrants made for the happiest day in his life.
"We want Gadhafi to be tried in Libya in front of everyone. Even if we die, our children will do the job," he said. "We never felt like we are human beings until today."
The warrant was the second issued for a sitting head of state since the court began work in 2002. Judges have twice issued warrants for Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.
The al-Bashir warrants underscore the court's key shortcoming: He has repeatedly exposed the impotence of a court without its own police force by traveling to friendly nations without being arrested. But he also has canceled other trips for fear he could be detained and sent to The Hague.
International war crimes prosecutors count on such isolation eventually marginalizing and weakening leaders to the point where they lose the support of important allies, paving the way for arrests.
Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic ended up in court at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal years after he was first indicted for fomenting the Balkan wars. Former Liberian leader Charles Taylor also has been brought before a war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands.
The White House called the court's decision one more indication that Gadhafi has lost his legitimacy. Spokesman Jay Carney said the ICC's action underscores the need for justice and for holding Gadhafi accountable.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoed that sentiment in Brussels.
"It reinforces the reason for NATO's mission, to protect the Libyan people from Gadhafi's forces," he said, adding that the Libyan leader and his supporters need to realize that "time is rapidly running out for them."
NATO has been conducting daily airstrikes against military targets in Libya for the past 100 days under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians.
On Monday morning, loud explosions shook Tripoli. Libyan officials said two NATO missiles targeted Gadhafi's personal bus inside his Bab al-Aziziya compound.
Journalists were taken to see a heavily damaged, burned out bus inside the compound two hours after the strike. It didn't appear to have been struck recently, however, since it was cool to the touch. No one was reported killed.
Also on Monday, an anti-Gadhafi youth group called the Free Generation Movement posted a video showing activists trying to set fire to a large street poster of Gadhafi, apparently in the heart of Tripoli. The poster was partially damaged with soot clearly blackening part of Gadhafi's face.
It wasn't possible to independently verify when and where the video was filmed.
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