The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court urged Moammar Gadhafi's own aides Tuesday to arrest the Libyan leader and turn him over for trial on murder and persecution charges _ or risk prosecution themselves.
As battles raged through a fifth month between Gadhafi's forces and rebels backed by NATO airstrikes, prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo was optimistic that Gadhafi's rule would be over within two or three months.
On Monday, the court issued arrest warrants for the Libyan leader, his son Seif and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanoussi for crimes against humanity. But the court has no police force, and relies on the law enforcement agencies of the 115 countries that ratified the court's founding statute.
Libya is not a member, but Moreno-Ocampo advised Gadhafi's inner circle to arrest their leader. They "can be part of the problem and be prosecuted or they can be part of the solution _ work together with other Libyans and stop the crimes," he told reporters at the court.
NATO forces operating in Libyan skies have no mandate to arrest suspects, he said. And NATO itself has said it does not want to put combat forces on the ground. The prosecutor said the other option for arresting Gadhafi is through the rebels fighting to end his more than four decades in power.
The court's enforcement problems were underscored this week by the trip to China by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was charged last year by the international court with genocide in Darfur. China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which authorized the court to investigate the Darfur conflict.
"China is not a signatory of the ICC ... and we reserve our opinion on the ICC's prosecution of al-Bashir," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference in Beijing. The United States also is not a signatory to the court's statute.
But Moreno-Ocampo is confident the international consensus to remove Gadhafi is stronger than in the case of Darfur, and he was upbeat about his chances of getting Gadhafi.
"If we have enough energy within the states, in two, three months it's game over," he said.
Even if it takes much longer to detain Gadhafi, Moreno-Ocampo insisted he will eventually be tried.
He cited the arrest last month of former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic after 15 years on the run as an example of how internationally wanted suspects almost always end up in court.
"It's a matter of time. See what happened with Mladic," Moreno-Ocampo said. "Bashir's destiny is to face justice, Gadhafi will face justice. The arrest warrants are not going away."
Speaking in Cambodia, where the trial of four Khmer Rouge leaders has just begun, U.S. war crimes ambassador Stephen Rapp agreed that the long-awaited Cambodian trials and Mladic's arrest sent a clear signal: "If you commit these crimes, there will be consequences."
Gadhafi's regime has rejected the court's authority and dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
"This court is nothing but a cover for the military operations of NATO," said Justice Minister Mohammed al-Qamudi. "It's merely a political tool for exerting pressure and political blackmail against sovereign countries."
Journalists based in Tripoli were taken Tuesday to the town of Bani Walid, 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of the Libyan capital. About 200 pro-government supporters, mainly women, arrived on buses, chanting and firing automatic rifles into the air in support of Gadhafi.
One demonstrator, Baga Omar Zibeida, 55, an English teacher, criticized the ICC decision, saying the Libyan leader had done nothing wrong.
"How can they arrest him? For what? What has he done?" he asked.
On Monday, thousands of Libyans poured into Liberty Square in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi after the court's decision was announced to celebrate. The square echoed with chants of: "The blood of the martyrs will not be wasted" and "Freedom is here. Today we win."
Presiding Judge Sanji Monageng of Botswana said Gadhafi and his inner circle reacted to uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt by mapping out a "state policy ... aimed at deterring and quelling by any means _ including by the use of lethal force _ demonstrations by civilians against the regime."
Hundreds of civilians were killed, injured or arrested in the last two weeks of February, and there were "reasonable grounds to believe" that Gadhafi and his supporters were responsible for the murder and persecution of civilians as well as attempting to cover up the crimes, she said.
Moreno-Ocampo said Tuesday his office is investigating the cover-up attempts as well as reports of widespread rapes by pro-Gadhafi forces. But he said he had not been able yet to directly link Gadhafi to the rape allegations.
Moreno-Ocampo said there should be urgent negotiations over the future of Gadhafi and his regime, but he said there must be "clear legal limits" to any talks. It must be clear that any ICC member country should arrest him if he travels to its territory.
"Gadhafi cannot retain power to keep attacking his victims," he said.
In Libya's western Nafusa mountains, the rebels claimed to have made gains Tuesday on the ground.
Rebel spokesman Gomaa Ibrahim said that opposition fighters took over an important weapons storage site some 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of the mountain town of Zintan. He added that the weapons depot is important because it helps shore up rebel supplies for an eventual advance on Tripoli.
The commander of NATO's Libya operation, Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, said Tuesday that any scaling down of the daily airstrikes was "not appropriate," despite calls for a negotiated end to the conflict and the alliance's inability to give rebel fighters a decisive edge in their battle to topple Gadhafi.
In London, Britain's international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said Libya's security forces will be asked to return to work quickly once Gadhafi is removed from power to maintain peace as the nation rebuilds its shattered economy.
The proposal is part of a plan being drawn up by the U.K., U.S., Turkey and others together with Libya's opposition.
Meanwhile, in Washington, a top State Department lawyer said President Barack Obama acted within the law in ordering U.S. military intervention against Libya.
Harold Koh told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that four factors led Obama to conclude that the Libya operation did not require congressional authorization.
Koh said the U.S. military's role is limited _ in mission, exposure of American troops to hostilities, risk of escalation and military attacks.
Associated Press reporters Adam Schreck in Bani Walid and Tripoli, and Maggie Michael in Cairo, contributed to this report.