Six consular officials, including the ambassador, were among two dozen Canadians spirited out of Libya overnight, in a clear signal Ottawa is suspending its diplomatic presence in the embattled North African country.

The six officials and 18 other Canadian citizens were among a group of British citizens and Australian diplomats flown to Malta aboard a C17 in the early morning hours Saturday.

"What this means is Canada has now suspended its diplomatic presence in Libya, following the example of the United States and Britain," CTV's Richard Madan reported from Ottawa Saturday.

In total, 46 people left Tripoli on the flight, leaving about 100 Canadians in Libya who have indicated they wish to leave the country, which is being torn apart by protests calling for the ouster of autocratic ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

"The priority remains to continue to evacuate Canadians," Dimitri Soudas, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said Saturday.

So far, about 200 Canadians have managed to flee Libya, mostly on planes chartered by other countries, as well as a U.S. flagged ferry. On Friday, a plane chartered by the Canadian government was forced to leave Tripoli without any passengers because officials could not locate any Canadians at the airport.

Soudas defended the federal government's evacuation efforts, saying officials "have worked around the clock with partners around the world to ensure safe passage for Canadians by any and all means to reach safety as quickly as possible."

He added: "Canadians did not find themselves on charters of other nations by coincidence."

Senior government officials will remain in Malta to assist the Canadians who arrive there.

On Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada will enact strict new sanctions on Gadhafi's regime, echoing similarly strong words from White House officials, the United Nations and other countries around the world.

"I've instructed our officials to prepare a full range of sanctions against the Libyan regime, both in collaboration with our international partners or unilaterally if necessary," Harper said, emphasising that all options are being considered to dealing with both Gadhafi's regime and his family.

"No options have been ruled out."

Speaking Saturday, Soudas elaborated on the nature of possible sanctions, including forcing Canadian businesses there to temporarily cease operations.

Suncor Energy and SNC-Lavalin are just two of the Canadian companies who operate in the country.

The prime minister also suggested that any attacks on civilians within Libya could be cause for legal action at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

"Those responsible for ordering and carrying out atrocities against the Libyan people must be held accountable," Harper told reporters Friday night.

The prime minister added that Canada will support a push from the UN Security Council to enact an embargo on arms and to freeze the assets of the Gadhafi regime.

The White House also announced Friday that new, unilateral sanctions would be imposed on Gadhafi and his family. U.S. Treasury officials have also been asked to take extra precautions with "private banking accounts held by or on behalf of senior foreign political figures."

On Friday night, the Obama administration closed down its embassy in Libya and froze the U.S. assets of the Libyan government, Gadhafi and four of his children.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will also meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Monday to discuss further action against Libya.

In recent days, a string of Libyan ambassadors and diplomats around the world have abandoned the regime, as have the justice and interior ministers at home, and one of Gadhafi's cousins and closest aides, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, who sought refuge in Egypt.

According to a partial count, the New York-based Human Rights Watch estimates 300 people have died in Libya since protesters first took to the streets on Feb. 15. Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed were "credible."

With files from The Canadian Press