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Canada suspends diplomatic presence in Libya; evacuates officials

Canada has suspended its diplomatic presence in Libya where a violent government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters is continuing, officials said Saturday.

They said a military plane spirited the Canadian ambassador, five consular officials as well as 18 other Canadians out of the country early Saturday.

The C17 also carried British citizens and officials from Australia’s mission. In all, 46 people were evacuated.

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 are 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.

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

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.

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

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

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 Harper. “No options have been ruled out.”

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 Soudas.

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 Mr. Gadhafi and specifically the consequences of the actions that he has incurred on his own people in the last little while.”

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

A Foreign Affairs official, speaking on background, said they are now 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,” the official said.