The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, accusing him of crimes against humanity.
The court had grounds to believe he had ordered attacks on civilians during Libya’s four-month uprising, it said.
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The Hague-based court also issued warrants for two of Col Gaddafi’s top aides – his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanussi.
Thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the conflict.
Anti-Gaddafi forces said on Monday they had launched a new push towards Tripoli. There has been heavy fighting near the strategic town of Bir al-Ghanam, to the south-west of capital.
The rebel defence minister told the BBC that forces opposed to Col Gaddafi may also make a move on the capital from the east.
The ICC arrest warrants refer to early weeks of the uprising, from 15 February until “at least 28 February”.
The statement, read out by presiding judge Sanji Monageng, said there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that the three men were “criminally responsible” for the murder and persecution of civilians.
As the “recognised and undisputed leader of Libya”, said the court, Col Gaddafi had “absolute, ultimate and unquestioned control” over the state.
He introduced a state policy “aimed at deterring and quelling by any means, including by the use of force, the demonstrations of civilians against the regime”, the court alleged.
The warrant says that while Saif al-Islam Gaddafi holds no official position in Libya, he is “the most influential person” in Col Gaddafi’s inner circle.
Mr Sanussi, said the court, had “indirectly instructed the troops to attack civilians demonstrating” in Benghazi, the city that has become the rebels’ stronghold.
The BBC’s Andrew Harding in Misrata said there was celebratory gunfire on the streets of the besieged city as the news emerged.
The warrants had been requested by chief ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo in May. He has said Col Gaddafi must be arrested in order to protect civilians.
But the Libyan authorities have previously said they do not recognise the court and are not concerned by the threat of a warrant.
On Sunday, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said the court was overly preoccupied with pursuing African leaders and had “no legitimacy whatsoever”.
But the arrest warrant was welcomed by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said it further demonstrated “why Gaddafi has lost all legitimacy and why he should go immediately”.
Mr Hague called on people within the Libyan regime to abandon the leader and said those responsible for “atrocities” must be held to account.
The ICC announcement comes as the international air operation in Libya, aimed at protecting civilians, enters its 100th day.
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