THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court prosecutor said on Tuesday Libyan authorities had decided they were ready to kill unarmed protestors opposed to Muammar Gaddafi's rule even before unrest spread from Tunisia and Egypt.
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said the plan, which the government of Gaddafi began developing in January, authorised the use of tear gas and, if necessary, killings.
His comments mark the first time since Libya was referred to The Hague-based institution in February that a senior international legal official has said evidence exists the Gaddafi government planned to kill its own people, although Western political leaders have previously alluded to this.
"We have evidence that after the Tunisia and Egypt conflicts in January, people in the regime were planning how to control demonstrations inside Libya," Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters.
"They were hiding that from people outside and they were planning how to manage the crowds ... the evidence we have is that the shooting of civilians was a pre-determined plan."
"The planning at the beginning was to use tear gas and (if that failed to work)..., shooting," he added.
The U.N. Security Council last month authorised "all necessary measures" to protect civilians under threat of attack in Libya, opening the way for air strikes on government military targets, a no-fly zone and an arms embargo.
Gaddafi, his sons and key aides are under investigation by Moreno-Ocampo over the violent crackdown on protestors, which Britain says has cost at least 1,000 lives, and Moreno-Ocampo has said he will request arrest warrants in the coming weeks.
The prosecutor said defection from the Gaddafi camp would be viewed as a mitigating circumstance in the investigation but it was up to the U.N. Security Council to decide on any political deal with the Gaddafi authorities.
The U.N. Security Council referred Libya to the court on February 26 and can suspend ICC investigations for 12 months at a time.
Moreno-Ocampo said he was keen to speak with Moussa Koussa, the Libyan foreign minister who defected to London last month, saying he opposed attacks by Gaddafi's forces on civilians.
Investigators were assessing who was most responsible for attacks on civilians, but Moreno-Ocampo said that it was too early to say whether Koussa would be granted immunity or what impact his defection might have on the ICC investigation.
"The fact is that when we warned different people, including Moussa Koussa, that the troops were committing crimes, if someone cannot control them, defecting is a valid option and that is what Moussa Koussa did. We will see what responsibility he had," he said.
"We would like to see what Moussa Koussa knows. But the fact that he defected is a factor we will consider seriously."
ICC investigators say at least 565 unarmed civilians were killed in Libya between February 15 and February 28 but Moreno-Ocampo also raised concern about abductions, torture and killing of people in Tripoli considered disloyal to the Gaddafi regime.
Although high-profile defections have undermined Gaddafi, diplomatic efforts to end the war have stalled even as Western forces continue a campaign of air strikes.
Some Western officials say threat of an appearance at The Hague-based court is an obstacle to persuading Gaddafi and his entourage to go into exile, and other top aides to defect.
But Moreno-Ocampo said such considerations were for others: "We have judicial responsibilities. We collect evidence and present to the judges. Political responsibilities are in the hands of the Security Council."
According to some legal observers, the threat of an arrest warrant could be used as leverage in any political negotiations to end the violence.
The Security Council could suspend the ICC investigation to allow Gaddafi to leave power, or rule out an international intervention to arrest the veteran leader.
That last option could allow Gaddafi to travel to any of the 80 states that have yet to sign up to the ICC, leaving the way open to him departing into exile, though Moreno-Ocampo said it was not his place to negotiate such matters.
"The political responsibilities are in the hands of the Security Council ... any political decision will be taken by the Security Council, not by me," Moreno-Ocampo said.