MADRID (AP) — The U.S. and Spain said Saturday they won't let Moammar Gaddafi's threats of retaliatory attacks in Europe deter their mission to protect Libyan civilians and force him to leave power after four decades of often unpredictable and sometimes violent rule.
"Instead of issuing threats, he should be putting the well-being and interests of his own people first," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. "He should step down from power."
Speaking in Spain on the last leg of a three-nation European tour, Clinton brushed aside Gaddafi's brazen warning Friday that unless NATO halted air attacks against his regime, he would retaliate with attacks on civilians in Europe.
Gaddafi told a large pro-government rally in Tripoli that "homes, offices and families" would become legitimate military targets.
It was unclear how Gaddafi would make good on his threats and despite his past backing for various militant groups, whether the latest outburst amounted to anything more than a political rallying cry from a leader given to outlandish rhetoric. He delivered his message by telephone from an unknown location.
Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University, said he believed Gadhafi would struggle to launch any kind of operation against Europe.
"I would have thought he is so engaged in trying to survive, that starting any operation out of Libya would be difficult," he said. "The real question is whether there are any operatives abroad already who could be motivated to start some actions."
Libya once provided arms to the IRA, but Rogers said he did not believe Gaddafi could deal again with Northern Ireland. There are some Irish splinter groups operating outside the peace process, but they are contained within Ireland.
British officials said they were taking the threats seriously, but no special security precautions had been put in place. They also believed that Gadhafi's military capability had been significantly weakened by NATO attacks. Norway and Sweden also said that no extra security measures would be taken.
"He's now verbalizing something that we had been preparing for once the military operations began," said a British government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about security matters.
Appearing alongside Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez at a news conference in Madrid, Clinton said Gaddafi must end military operations. She insisted that NATO's mission to protect civilians was on track and that the pressure on Gadhafi to cede power was mounting.
"The rebels are gaining strength and momentum," Clinton said. "We need to see this through."
Jimenez said Gaddafi's threats wouldn't diminish Spain's resolve.
"We will continue exerting the same military and political pressure," she said, "to protect Libyan citizens from the threat and the use of military violence by Colonel Gaddafi."
Asked about the opposition by some African leaders to the international arrest warrant against Gaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam and Libya's intelligence chief, Clinton noted that the referral for action came in a United Nations resolution. Nigeria, Gabon and South Africa, the three African members of the Security Council, voted in favor, she noted.
A number of Africa's leaders said Friday at an African Union conference in Equatorial Guinea that they wouldn't respect the warrant, causing some concern that Gaddafi may be able to find haven across large parts of the continent. But Clinton said the majority of African nations supported international justice in this case.
On Afghanistan, Clinton thanked Spain for its support in training policemen and improving health care, and expressed condolences for two Spanish soldiers killed in a roadside bomb attack earlier this week. The two diplomats said they'd work hard as the international coalition transfers greater responsibility to Afghan authorities.
Clinton also voiced support for Spanish economic reform efforts, while trying to steer clear of wading into internal Spanish politics. She was scheduled to meet later Saturday with Spain's king, prime minister and the leading opposition candidate heading into next year's election.
Spain is struggling with soaring unemployment as nearly one in five is out of work, and it was the last major economy to emerge from the global recession. Spain's government has raised the retirement age and made it easier for companies to fire workers, while trying to simultaneously cut debt and stimulate the economy.
"I know how politically difficult many of the actions are that the current government has taken on," Clinton said. "President Obama has taken (on) some very difficult political issues and has been roundly criticized, because these are controversial."
She said the 2008 economic collapse meant countries had to "make responsible decisions regardless of the political controversy or consequences."
Paisley Dodds and Meera Selva in London; and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report.