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An anti-government protester prays in a state security building taken over by anti-government protesters in Benghazi city, Libya, February 23, 2011.Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

Moammar Gadhafi's Libya is quickly being reduced to the capital, Tripoli, and surrounding areas as more of the country's cities and towns fall to opposition protesters.

And, as the Libyan leader prepares to make a final stand with those forces still loyal to him, hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals are scrambling to get out of the country to avoid a bloodbath.

Several governments are dispatching aircraft and ships to remove their nationals from Libya.

A Skylink aircraft, chartered by the Canadian government, is expected to land in Tripoli Thursday to transport people to Rome. Some 26 Canadians were among passengers on a U.S.-chartered ship that ferried people to nearby Malta.

Meanwhile, international efforts to rein in the Libyan leader are mounting.

U.S. President Barack Obama said the violent crackdown in Libya violated international norms and that he had ordered his national security team to prepare the full range of options for dealing with the crisis.

"It is imperative that the nations and peoples of the world speak with one voice," Mr. Obama told reporters in his first public comments on the turmoil in Libya.

In an unusually pointed warning to Colonel Gadhafi, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "Those responsible for brutally shedding the blood of innocents must be punished."

The "current situation is unpredictable and could go in any number of directions, many of them dangerous," Mr. Ban told a news conference in New York Wednesday.

But Amnesty International slammed such rhetoric as being "shamefully below what was needed" to stop the spiralling violence in Libya. Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's Secretary-General, called for concrete action, including an immediate arms embargo and freezing of assets.

"Col. Gadhafi and all those reporting to him need to know that they will be held personally accountable under international law for the crimes they commit," he said.

The truth is there's little they can do, said Judith Kipper, director of Middle East Programs at the Institute of World Affairs in Washington. "Their options are very limited."

In the short term, it all comes down to the man himself, she said, and the hold he has on his military forces.

International journalists who have entered the eastern part of Libya from Egypt report extensive areas in the country are now run by protester groups, citizens committees and former soldiers of the Gadhafi regime.

The extent of Col. Gadhafi's control extends largely to the western coastal region around Tripoli, the deserts to the south and parts of the centre of the country.

The opposition said Wednesday it had taken over Misurata, Libya's third largest city, located 150 kilometres east of the capital.

Major General Suleiman Mahmoud, commander of the Libyan army in Tobruk, told Al Jazeera television that his forces have deserted Col. Gadhafi and are siding with local residents. "We are supporting the Libyan people," he told the Arab-language television network, adding that Tobruk was peaceful and residents were organizing themselves.

"The one thing Gadhafi may be able to count on are his mercenaries," said Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. "If they lose him, they lose their paycheque."

Indeed, there were reports Wednesday that thousands of foreign mercenaries were making their way from eastern Libya to Tripoli, in the West, where Col. Gadhafi remains hunkered down.

Col. Gadhafi's use of mercenaries is one of the things that distinguishes Libya from neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, said Mr. Bell, the Paul Martin Senior Scholar on International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor. "In those countries, the army refused to fire on their fellow citizens. Mercenaries have no such qualms."

Libya's other distinguishing feature is the role played in society by tribes, Mr. Bell said.

Tribal connections may have helped the Libyan leader tighten his grip on power initially, he said. But such links probably also explain how support for the opposition is spreading so quickly.

Tripoli, on Wednesday, was a veritable ghost town, say residents who remain shuttered inside their homes and others who have fled the capital.

Streets were mainly empty, people said, despite a televised appeal from the Brotherly Leader for all who love him to take to the streets.

Only the area known as Green Square, a Gadhafi stronghold since the start of anti-Gadhafi protests, showed any amount of pro-regime support.

Militiamen and Gadhafi supporters were reported to be roaming the capital's main streets, sometimes firing their weapons in the air, shouting "long live Gadhafi."

In a further sign of the dictator's faltering hold on power, two air force pilots - one from the leader's own tribe - are reported to have parachuted out of their warplane Wednesday to let it crash into the eastern desert, rather than follow orders to bomb an opposition-held city.