UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Thursday to lift the no-fly zone over Libya on Oct. 31 and end military action to protect civilians, acting swiftly following the death of Moammar Gadhafi and the interim government's declaration of the country's liberation.
The council authorized the actions on March 17 in response to an Arab League request to try to halt Moammar Gadhafi's military, which was advancing against rebels and their civilian supporters. The NATO bombing campaign that followed was critical in helping the rebels oust Gadhafi from power in August.
"This marks a really important milestone in the transition in Libya," Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said. "It marks the way from the military phase towards the formation of an inclusive government, the full participation of all sectors of society, and for the Libyan people to choose their own future."
In Berlin, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance would on Friday confirm its earlier, preliminary decision to end operations Oct. 31.
Fogh Rasmussen said after meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Thursday's U.N. resolution "reflects that we have fully accomplished our mandate to protect the civilian population of Libya, so now we have firm ground for terminating our operations as we decided to do a week ago."
Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance was ready to assist the new Libyan government in the transformation to democracy, particularly in the areas of defense and security sector reforms.
"I wouldn't expect new tasks beyond that," he said.
The Security Council adopted the resolution a day after Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi told the council Libyans wanted their sovereignty restored but asked members to hold up action until the transitional government made a formal request, which he hoped would come by Oct. 31.
The U.N.'s most powerful body rejected his request, deciding that there was no need for U.N.-authorized military action following the death of Gadhafi on Oct. 20 and the National Transitional Council's announcement of liberation on Oct. 23.
Last week, NATO announced preliminary plans to phase out its mission on Oct. 31. But the alliance unexpectedly postponed a decision on Wednesday, saying NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen needed to continue consultations with the U.N. and Libya's transitional government. The alliance's governing body, the North Atlantic Council, was scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the Libyan mission.
The resolution ends the U.N. authorization for military action just before midnight on Oct. 31, which means that Libya will regain control of its airspace and all military operations effective Nov. 1.
The Security Council said it looks forward "to the swift establishment of an inclusive, representative transitional government of Libya" committed to democracy, good governance, rule of law, national reconciliation and respect for human rights.
It strongly urged Libyan authorities "to refrain from reprisals," take measures to prevent others from carrying out reprisals, and to protect the population, "including foreign nationals and African migrants." Those two groups have been targeted by anti-Gadhafi forces because they were seen as supporting the late dictator's regime.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who earlier argued that the resolution authorizing military action was misused by NATO to justify months of airstrikes against Gadhafi's regime, circulated a resolution last week calling for an end to military operations on Oct. 31.
Churkin welcomed the council's unanimous vote but told reporters that "numerous violations have taken place" in implementing the Libya resolution and "serious lessons should be drawn for the Security Council."
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice countered that NATO's action prevented "mass slaughter" in the eastern city of Benghazi and elsewhere over many months. And she insisted that all council members knew what authorization of the use of force to protect civilians would entail.
"We discussed it very concretely and plainly, and described thoroughly that this would entail active use of air power and air strikes," she said.
As the air campaign unfolded, Rice said, "there were those that found it increasingly uncomfortable what they had agreed to. But to suggest that somehow they were misled is false."
While U.S. aircraft were crucial at the beginning of the air campaign, France and Britain then took the lead in the NATO operation.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said his country was proud that it "stood on the side of the Libyan people" from the beginning and would now help them rebuild the country. As for Churkin's criticism, Araud said, "we let the historians decide."
Associated Press reporter Dave Rising contributed to this story from Berlin.