War crimes court judges Monday issued arrest warrants for Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and two of his closest allies for crimes against humanity committed against opponents of his regime, a judge said.
"The chamber hereby issue a warrant of arrest against Moammar Gaddafi," Judge Sanji Mmasenono Monageng said during a hearing at the Hague-based International Criminal Court.
The court's decision came on the 100th day of NATO's operations in Libya, with airstrikes having eased the siege of key rebel cities.
However Gaddafi is still in power and fears remain of a full-fledged civil war.
ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo had asked for warrants for Gaddafi, 69, his son Seif al-Islam, 39, and the head of Libyan intelligence, Abdullah al-Senussi, 62, for murder and persecution since mid-February, when the bloody uprising started.
All three are charged over their roles in suppressing the revolt, in which civilians were murdered and persecuted by Libyan forces, particularly in Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata, the prosecutor said.
Thousands have so far died in the fighting, while around 650,000 others fled the country. Another 243,000 Libyans have been displaced internally, according to UN figures.
On Sunday, Moreno-Ocampo said the war crimes in Libya will not stop until Gaddafi is arrested.
"Crimes continue today in Libya. To stop the crimes and protect civilians in Libya, Gaddafi must be arrested," he said in a statement.
On the ground in Libya, rebel commanders said the fighting centered on Bir al-Ghanam, a strategic point on the road to the Libyan capital.
Moreno-Ocampo's investigation follows a referral by the United Nations Security Council on the Libyan conflict on February 26. The prosecutor's office launched its investigation five days later. On May 16, Moreno-Ocampo asked the court for the warrants.
It will be the second time the ICC's chief prosecutor has a country's head of state in his sights, after an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was issued in March 2009. That warrant has yet to be executed.
In his submission, Moreno-Ocampo said Gaddafi had a personal hand in planning and implementing "a policy of widespread and systematic attacks against civilians and demonstrators and dissidents in particular."
"Gaddafi's plan expressly included the use of lethal force against demonstrators and dissidents," the submission said.
The Libyan strongman also ordered sniping at civilians leaving mosques after evening prayers. His forces carried out a systematic campaign of arrest and detention of alleged dissidents, it said.
"Gaddafi's plans were carried out through his inner circle, which included Seif al-Islam, Gaddafi's de-facto prime minister and his brother-in-law Al-Senussi, considered to be his right-hand man," the submission said.
Established in 2002, the ICC is the world's first permanent, treaty-based court set up to try those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide if the accused's own country cannot or will not do so.