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Protesters march in downtown Toronto Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011 in support of anti-government forces in Libya. Canada has suspended its diplomatic presence in Libya where a violent government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters is continuing, officials said Saturday. (J.P. Moczulski/The Canadian Press/J.P. Moczulski/The Canadian Press)
Protesters march in downtown Toronto Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011 in support of anti-government forces in Libya. Canada has suspended its diplomatic presence in Libya where a violent government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters is continuing, officials said Saturday. (J.P. Moczulski/The Canadian Press/J.P. Moczulski/The Canadian Press)

Canada suspends diplomatic presence in Libya, evacuates officials Add to ...

Canada suspended its diplomatic presence in Libya on Saturday as a violent government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters continued.

A military plane spirited the Canadian ambassador, five consular officials as well as 18 other Canadians out of the country, federal government officials said in a briefing early Saturday.

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The C17 also carried British citizens and officials from Australia's mission. In all, 46 people were flown out.`

There are now less than 100 Canadians in Libya hoping to flee the highly unstable North African country, the officials added.

A Canadian government plane remains on standby for them but officials were working with other countries to co-ordinate other means of evacuation.

"The priority remains to continue to evacuate Canadians," said Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The government's evacuation efforts have come under criticism this week as officials struggled to get charter flights into Tripoli.

A charter plane that landed in the Libyan capital Friday left without passengers on board because it couldn't find any Canadians at the airport.

Mr. Soudas defended the government's rescue operations, saying officials "have worked around the clock with partners and around the world to ensure safe passage for Canadians by any and all means to reach safety as quickly as possible."

"Canadians did not find themselves on charters of other nations by coincidence," he added.

Some 200 Canadians who have escaped the country so far got out on an American-hired ferry and planes brought in by various other countries.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Canada's evacuation efforts were hampered by the fact the Tories haven't given Canada's foreign service adequate resources and is now suffering the consequences.

"We didn't staff it up and I don't think we've invested enough," he told reporters in Montreal.

"And now we discover in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya just how important our diplomats are to help Canadians out of danger and to give us the good information to make public policy."

Senior government officials said Canadian staff will stay in Malta to assist citizens arriving there and that Foreign Affairs staff remain in contact with Canadians still in Libya.

Meanwhile, Canada is preparing a full range of sanctions against the Libyan regime, Mr. Harper announced late Friday.

Mr. Harper called the actions of Moammar Gadhafi "appalling" and said the long-reigning Libyan leader must be held accountable.

Mr. Gadhafi, who has clung to power for nearly 42 years, has vowed to fight those opposing his rule and has called on his supporters to "defend the nation." Hundreds have been killed in the uprising.

"I've instructed our officials to prepare a full range of sanctions against the Libyan regime, both in collaboration with our international partners or unilaterally if necessary," said Mr. Harper. "No options have been ruled out."

Mr. Soudas said the sanctions could include forcing Canadian businesses there to stop work immediately.

Suncor Energy and SNC-Lavalin are among several Canadian companies with operations in the country.

"I don't think too many people under the current regime should be doing business in Libya," said Mr. Soudas.

SNC-Lavalin, the Montreal-based engineering giant, won't say how many workers are still in Libya but it currently has three major projects in the country, including the construction of a detention centre.

Robert Hettrick, a Saskatchewan native who has worked in Libya since 2001, managed to cross into Egypt on a bus with colleagues on Thursday.

Mr. Hettrick, who was working on a $500-million project at the Benghazi Airport, said he felt safe for the most part and was surprised the uprising "went as far as it did."

"There was a brief period where I wasn't quite sure what was going on but it passed very quickly," he said Saturday by phone from Alexandria.

Mr. Hettrick and a group of fellow workers left the compound early Thursday morning and had little trouble crossing the border, he said.

"There were a few check points," he said. "They weren't targeting foreigners."

Mr. Soudas acknowledged that sanctions may not facilitate a quick ending to the turmoil.

"Repercussions for what has occurred are really what matters here," he said.

"The idea here is to come down hard on Gadhafi and specifically the consequences of the actions that he has incurred on his own people in the last little while."

For the second weekend in a row, protesters in several Canadian cities rallied Saturday to condemn Mr. Ghadafi's regime and call for greater international pressure on his government.

About 100 people marched through downtown Montreal, waving Libyan and Egyptian flags and chanting "Down with Gadhafi!"

A demonstration in Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square drew a modest crowd, while dozens of people also showed up at events in Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Winnipeg.

Many at the rallies said Canada was too slow to speak out against Libya's violent crackdown on demonstrators.

"That took far too long," Amal Abuzgaya, one of the Toronto demonstration's organizers, said of the government's decision to pull out of the troubled country.

"We feel that Canada is being a follower and not taking action in terms of humanitarian aid," she said. "We still feel there's more that (the government) can do."

A Foreign Affairs spokesman said officials are working around the clock to monitor the volatile region.

They've asked all consular missions to update evacuation plans, ensure that staff have multiple entry and exit visas so they can move between embassies and are also doing daily political reporting.

"It's been quite a bit more focus since Christmas on that part of the world," said Blair James, assistant deputy minister of Foreign Affairs' consular services and emergency management branch.

A senior defence official said the C17 aircraft was the only military asset Canada currently has deployed in the area, but Mr. Soudas suggested other options were under consideration.

The situation in Libya remained tense Saturday. The embattled Libyan regime passed out guns to civilian supporters, set up checkpoints and sent armed patrols to patrol the capital Tripoli to try to maintain control and quash dissent as rebels consolidated control elsewhere in the North African nation.

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