Citing human-rights abuses against peaceful demonstrators in Libya, President Obama late Friday ordered that all the assets of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, his children and their wives be frozen in the United States, or in branches of U.S. banks.

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WASHINGTON — Citing human-rights abuses against peaceful demonstrators in Libya, President Obama late Friday ordered all the assets of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, his children and their wives be frozen in the United States, or in branches of U.S. banks.

The order comes as Gadhafi is losing his grip on power in the face of the uprising that began Feb. 15 in his oil-rich nation. Witnesses reported slayings and abductions by Gadhafi’s security forces and by hired mercenaries from other African nations.

“I … find that there is a serious risk that Libyan state assets will be misappropriated by Gadhafi, members of his government, members of his family, or his close associates if those assets are not protected,” Obama said in the order.

Included in the economic sanctions, which are designed to thwart the movement of cash and other assets that might enrich the Gadhafi family, the president cited Gadhafi’s four children and their spouses and children. Gadhafi’s children, including one daughter and three sons, apparently draw personal incomes from Libya’s state-owned oil companies.

Stuart Levey, undersecretary for terrorism at the Treasury Department, said officials believe “substantial sums of money” will be frozen under the order. He declined to give an estimate.

Obama also vowed to work with the international community and the United Nations to coordinate these and other actions.

Earlier Friday, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in an ever more deadly battle for control of the country, as Gadhafi loyalists killed opponents by the dozens and grabbed hostages off the streets.

The United States shuttered its Embassy in Tripoli after evacuating its diplomats and most U.S. citizens in Libya.

In a dramatic scene at the United Nations, when officials said more than 1,000 may be dead in Libya, the country’s U.N. ambassador denounced Gadhafi and pleaded, “Please United Nations, save Libya.”

Gadhafi has told Libyans, “Either I rule over you or I kill you or I destroy you,” said the ambassador, Mohamed Shalgham, who was hugged by other diplomats, including his deputy, who was shaking and crying as the session concluded.

In Tripoli, government militiamen opened fire “in front of our face,” Zakariya Naas, 38, said in a telephone interview. He said he watched 15, maybe 20, bodies drop.

“The military, they are going in the small streets in between the houses and opened the fire, guns, and (they caught) some live people and took them,” Naas said. “I saw by my own eyes, more than seven young guys” taken hostage at gunpoint, he said.

In the absence of ambulance service, protesters were trying to commandeer people’s cars to get the injured to hospitals. But with crowds in the streets, roads closed and hospitals overwhelmed, help was hard to find. As evening fell, he said, “We have to jump from house to house because we cannot walk in the street now.”

With his grip over much of Libya crumbling, Gadhafi, his family and his remaining security forces have chosen to make a stand in Tripoli.

Gadhafi staged a fist-pumping show of defiance Friday evening, appearing on state-run television at a rally before a crowd of cheering supporters in Tripoli’s central Green Square.

But the Libyan leader faced rising international pressure on several fronts.

About 30 minutes after a chartered jet took off from Tripoli carrying the last U.S. diplomats out of Libya, the Obama administration said it had begun imposing sanctions on Gadhafi’s government.

A ferry carrying 300 people, roughly half U.S. citizens, arrived in Malta after an eight-hour voyage from Tripoli. Joan Polaschik, the chief U.S. diplomat in Tripoli, told CNN from Istanbul, Turkey, that about 90 Americans remain in Libya.

U.S. officials — who were careful not to criticize Gadhafi by name before the evacuation — signaled he should go. Obama administration press secretary Jay Carney said, “It’s clear that Col. Gadhafi has lost the confidence of his people” and “his legitimacy has been reduced to zero in the eyes of his people.”

Carney said the Treasury Department had begun tracking financial transactions by Libyan government officials, and the Pentagon was halting its limited engagement with the Libyan military.

At the U.N., France and Britain circulated a draft resolution that would refer the government’s alleged atrocities to the International Criminal Court and institute an arms embargo.

The longtime Libyan leader remained defiant.

“We are ready to triumph over the enemy,” Gadhafi said in a brief address from the ramparts of Red Fort, a medieval fortress overlooking Tripoli’s Green Square. “We will fight if they want.”

“At the suitable time, we will open the arms depot so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire,” Gadhafi said.

There was little doubt the broadcast was intended to bolster Gadhafi’s supporters as new defections shrank his government, the Middle East’s longest lasting.

With few foreign journalists in Tripoli and phone lines frequently down, it’s difficult to get a clear picture of events in the Libyan capital. Many of the details of the chaos come from telephone interviews with residents.

But outside Tripoli, there were growing indications the tide was beginning to turn against Gadhafi, 68, who has ruled Libya since 1969 but now faces a revolt that threatens to add him to the list of regional leaders ousted in a wave of pro-democracy protests.

In Zawiyah, an oil terminal west of Tripoli, protesters had been bracing Friday for renewed attacks by Gadhafi after his forces retreated Thursday. But by Friday evening, the feared retaliation hadn’t materialized, and a former-diplomat-turned-protester, reached by phone, said about 300 former Gadhafi forces went to the town square to say they were defecting and began distributing weapons.

In another diplomatic defection, Libya’s envoy to the U.N. Human Rights Council renounced his links to Gadhafi’s government. Diplomats in the meeting hall in Geneva, Switzerland, erupted in applause, Reuters reported.

Related developments:

Iraq: Thousands marched on government buildings and clashed with security forces in cities across Iraq. Twelve people were killed in the largest and most violent anti-government protests in the country since political unrest began spreading in the Arab world. In the capital, Baghdad, demonstrators knocked down blast walls and threw rocks. The protests are fueled by anger over corruption, chronic unemployment and shoddy public services from the Shiite-dominated government.

Yemen: Security forces fired on thousands of demonstrators in the southern port city of Aden, wounding at least 19 people, in the latest confrontation with crowds pressing for the U.S.-backed president’s ouster. Tens of thousands of protesters marched in different parts of the country. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has promised to step down after national elections in 2013, but the demonstrators want him out now.

Bahrain: Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters filled Bahrain’s capital, Manama, on Friday to boost pressure for sweeping political concessions before possible talks to end nearly two weeks of demonstrations in the strategic Gulf island kingdom.

Jordan: About 4,000 protesters rallied in the capital, Amman, the largest crowd in two months of unrest. King Abdullah II, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, has failed to quiet the calls for change. The protesters want a bigger say in politics and for the prime minister to be chosen through elections, not by the king.

Tunisia: Police in Tunis fired warning shots and tear gas to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters in the center of the capital. Demonstrators massed in front of the Interior Ministry to call for the ouster of the interim government that has run Tunisia since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled Jan. 14 and fled into exile. Tunisia has been relatively calm since Ben Ali’s ouster.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.