NATO chief heralds end of NATO mission in Libya

TRIPOLI, Libya — NATO’s top official praised the alliance’s 7-month sea and air campaign in Libya — key in ousting longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi — saying the mission’s end Monday marks the close of a “successful chapter in NATO’s history.”

TRIPOLI, Libya — NATO’s top official praised the alliance’s 7-month sea and air campaign in Libya — key in ousting longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi — saying the mission’s end Monday marks the close of a “successful chapter in NATO’s history.”

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was making his first visit to Tripoli since the end of the civil war less than two weeks ago, also congratulated the country’s revolutionaries on their victory and said they “helped change the region.”

“You acted to change your history and your destiny, we acted to protect you,” Fogh Rasmussen said at a joint news conference with Libya’s interim leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. “Together we succeeded: Libya is finally free.”

Also Monday, preparations were under way to choose a new Libyan prime minister who is to appoint a government that will run the country in coming months and pave the way for general elections and the drafting of a constitution. Libya’s 52-member National Transitional Council gathered at an Islamic college in Tripoli to choose the prime minister from five candidates, officials said. The current prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, has said he is resigning.

NATO operations in the country officially end at midnight Monday Libyan time (2200 GMT, 6 p.m. EDT). Last week, the U.N. Security Council — which authorized the mission in March — ordered an end to all military action in Libya.

Over the past seven months, allied air forces carried out 9,600 strike sorties, destroying about 5,900 military targets. An average of 15 warships were on station at all times off the Libyan coast to enforce an arms embargo.

“At midnight tonight, a successful chapter in NATO’s history is coming to an end, but you have already started writing a new chapter in the history of Libya, a new Libya based on freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” Fogh Rasmussen said. “We know it’s not easy. We know the challenges, and if you ask us for help in areas where we can help, we will.”

NATO persevered during a monthslong period of stalemate on the battlefield, when it appeared that Libya could become an Afghanistan-like quagmire. With the alliance airstrikes helping open the way, revolutionary forces eventually captured Tripoli in late August, and brought an end to the war with the capture and death of Gadhafi on Oct. 20.

Abdul-Jalil, who is the head of Libya’s National Transitional Council, thanked Fogh Rasmussen for the alliance’s support.

“NATO operations were successful, with the grace of God and the determination of fighters,” he said. “The strikes were accurate so that civilians were not impacted, the people of Libya can testify to this.”

The end of the NATO mission clears the way for passenger flights to and from Libya. Transportation Minister Anwar al-Fitouri said that Libya’s four airports would resume operations Tuesday.

In recent weeks, some airlines had resumed limited service, with planes landing at Tripoli’s Metiga military airport. Several flights carrying Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia have taken off from Tripoli’s main airport.

With the Libya mission drawing to a close, spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said NATO staff temporarily seconded to the headquarters in Naples, Italy, for the operation are being reassigned to regular duties. The alliance concluded its airstrikes soon after Gadhafi’s capture and death on Oct. 20, but maintained regular air patrols over Libya.

The operation’s critics — including Russia, China, the African Union, and others — have argued that NATO misused the limited U.N. resolution imposing a no-fly zone and authorizing the protection of civilians as a pretext to promote regime change.

With the end of NATO’s Libya mission, the alliance has faced some calls to intervene in Syria’s uprising.

But Fogh Rasmussen said NATO has no intention to get involved in Syria.

“I can completely rule that out,” he said. “Having said that, I strongly condemn the crackdowns on the civilian population in Syria. What has happened in Libya sends a clear signal to autocratic regimes all over the world — you cannot neglect the will of the people.”

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Lekic reported from Brussels, Belgium. Associated Press writer Rami al-Shaheibi in Tripoli, Libya contributed reporting.