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Barack Obama

WASHINGTON – Ratcheting up the pressure, President Barack Obama on Saturday said Moammar Gadhafi has lost his legitimacy to rule and urged the Libyan leader to leave power immediately.

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It was the first time Obama has called for Gadhafi to step down, coming after days of bloodshed in Libya. Gadhafi has vowed to fight to the end to maintain his four-decade grip on power in the North African country.

“When a leader’s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now,” the White House said in a statement, summarizing Obama’s telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Until now, U.S. officials have held back from such a pronouncement, insisting it is for the Libyan people to determine who their leader should be.

Obama commented a day after the administration froze all Libyan assets in the U.S. that belong to Gadhafi, his government and four of his children. The U.S. also closed its embassy in Libya and suspended the limited defense trade between the countries.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced further sanctions Saturday, revoking visas for senior Libyan officials and their immediate family members. She said future applications from those blacklisted for travel to the United States would be rejected.

Gadhafi “should go without further bloodshed and violence,” Clinton said in a separate statement.

Obama has been holding a series of discussions with world leaders about the unrest in Libya. The administration is hoping that the world speaks with a single voice against Gadhafi’s violent crackdown on protesters, and the president is sending Clinton to Geneva on Sunday to coordinate with foreign policy chiefs from several countries.

The U.S. tone shifted sharply on Friday after Americans in Libya were evacuated from the country by ferry and a chartered airplane.

Shortly after, Obama signed an executive order outlining financial penalties designed to pressure Gadhafi’s government into halting the violence.

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