Muammar Gaddafi
Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi appears in a live broadcast on state television in Tripoli in this still image taken from video March 15, 2011.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has today issued an arrest warrant for Muammar Gaddafi over crimes against humanity committed against opponents of his regime.

The court, based in The Hague, also issued warrants for Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam and the Libyan intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi - at the request of the ICC's chief prosecutor.

Gaddafi, in power since 1969, is only the world's second serving head of state to be issued with an arrest warrant. A warrant for the arrest of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, was issued in March 2009 over alleged crimes in Darfur.

Sanji Mmasenono Monageng, the ICC presiding judge, insisted that arrests were necessary to prevent a cover-up and more crimes.

The investigation launched by the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, follows a referral on 26 February by the UN Security Council.

The ICC has been attacked by some for pursuing legal avenues at the expense of a possible political solution. Critics argue that Gaddafi and his closest associates will have no incentive to relinquish power or go into voluntary exile if they know they are certain to end up in the dock in The Hague.

Despite renewed international calls for him to step down, the Libyan leader has vowed he would stay in his country. After Nato airstrikes killed one of his sons and of three of his grandchildren Gaddafi sounded even more resolute to stay in Libya and as the Alliance refuses to halt its bombing campaign on Tripoli, the Colonel is now become increasingly defiant.

Meanwhile, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi,his son has also vowed to "live or die" in Libya.

The Benghazi-based Libyan rebels, who say they will continue fighting until Gaddafi is deposed, have strongly supported the ICC case and submitted evidence to the prosecutor.

Monageng told the court there were "reasonable grounds to believe" the regime had killed or injured and arrested hundreds of civilians and that Muammar Gaddafi exercised full control over the security forces. His son was described as his father's "unspoken successor" and the most influential person in his inner circle, with the powers of a de facto prime minister.

In his submission to the court last month 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.

"Methods used to torture alleged dissidents have included tying electric wires around victims' genitals and shocking them with electricity and whipping victims with an electric wire after tying them upside down with a rope connected to a stick."

The report also says the Libyan leader ordered snipers to shoot at civilians leaving mosques after evening prayers. His forces carried out a systematic campaign of arrest and detention of alleged dissidents.

Moreno Ocampo had last month also said that there was evidence that rape had been used by the leader's forces as a weapon to suppress the uprising. However, after an investigation by Amnesty International has failed to find evidence for these human rights violations, after Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser for Amnesty, who was in Libya for three months after the start of the uprising, says that "we have not found any evidence or a single victim of rape or a doctor who knew about somebody being raped", the charge of rape has been dropped and will not figure among the charges.

The announcement by the ICC was welcome by the international community.

Commenting on the warrant, the foreign secretary, William Hague, said he welcomed the ICC's decision. "The warrants further demonstrate why Gaddafi has lost all legitimacy and why he should go immediately. His forces continue to attack Libyans without mercy and this must stop."

"These individuals are accused of crimes against humanity and should be held to account before judges in a criminal court.

The warrants further demonstrate why Gaddafi has lost all legitimacy and why he should go immediately. His forces continue to attack Libyans without mercy and this must stop.

People at all levels of seniority should think carefully about the consequences of what they do - whether they are ordering attacks on civilians or carrying them out; whether they are firing rockets into residential areas or intimidating ordinary Libyans who want a better future. He said

Those involved must take full responsibility for their actions, and must be held to account." He also added.

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Mr Cameron said: "Britain and our partners are acting absolutely within the ambit of a UN resolution that was passed without objection and without veto.

"Our action in Libya is about protecting civilian life - that's why we are taking the steps we are to stop Gaddafi who is still trying to kill, maim, murder, bomb, shell, snipe his own civilians, his own citizens, and will continue to act under UN Resolution 1973.

"That's our responsibility - to protect civilians. Obviously it is for the Libyan people themselves to decide how they are governed and who governs them.

"I am confident that the pressure is growing on Gaddafi - military pressure, political pressure, diplomatic pressure - and we should keep that pressure up."

But Mr Wen Jiabao , the Vice-Premier of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, on a visit in the UK called for the situation to be resolved through "political, peaceful means".

"We believe that the settlement of issues in a country should be based on the efforts of the people of that country," he said.

"We hope that the issue of Libya will be resolved through political, peaceful means, to reduce the humanitarian harm and in particular the harm to innocent civilians."

He added: "We place our hope with the Libyan people and we believe that it is the efforts of the people of that country that will eventually spur progress in the country.

"Foreign troops may be able to win war in a place, but they can hardly win peace. Hard lessons have been learnt from what has happened in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

"As to what position the UK Government should take, on this Prime Minister Cameron has made it very clear already."