TRIPOLI NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Monday hailed the end of the alliance's military intervention in Libya, which helped bring about the death of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi.
"It's great to be in Libya, free Libya," Rasmussen told a news conference in the capital Tripoli. "We acted to protect you. Together we succeeded. Libya is finally free, from Benghazi to Brega, from Misrata to the Western Mountains and to Tripoli."
He said he was proud of the part NATO had played in the seven-month insurgency against Gaddafi, in which NATO planes and ships turned their firepower on his forces.
Shortly after Rasmussen spoke, members of the ruling National Transitional Council elected a new interim prime minister, whose predecessor resigned after Libya was officially declared liberated.
"At midnight tonight a successful chapter in NATO history will come to an end. You have already started writing a new chapter in Libya's history. Our commanders were very careful to make sure we did not harm you or your families," he said.
Despite Rasmussen's depiction of the mission, the NATO intervention caused sharp rifts in the alliance and lasted much longer than Western nations had expected or wanted.
NATO stuck to its decision to end the operation despite NTC calls for it to stay engaged longer and says it does not expect to play a major post-war role, though it could assist the transition to democracy by helping with security sector reform.
NATO took over the mission on March 31, based on a United Nations mandate that set a no-fly zone over Libya and permitted foreign military forces, including NATO, to use "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians.
That mandate was terminated last Thursday, despite a request for the U.N. Security Council to wait for the NTC to decide if it wanted NATO help to secure its borders.
The mission was criticized by some countries, notably Russia and China, which, after co-sponsoring the U.N. resolution authorizing intervention in Libya, accused NATO of overstepping its mandate to protect civilians.
"TRUE ALLIANCE EFFORT"
NATO allies have been keen to see a quick conclusion to a costly effort that has involved more than 26,000 air sorties and round-the-clock naval patrols at a time when budgets are under severe strain because of the global economic crisis.
But NATO officials said members of the alliance are free to give further security aid to Libya individually.
The NTC officially announced Libya's liberation on October 23, days after the capture and killing of Gaddafi. NATO commanders have said they believe the interim administration is able to take care of the country's security.
In a sign that the NTC is pressing ahead with rebuilding the administration, Tripoli academic Abdul al-Raheem al-Qeeb was elected interim prime minister on Monday in a vote conducted by NTC members in front of reporters.
The previous interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, fulfilled a promise to resign after Libya was declared officially "liberated" after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's home town Sirte and his subsequent killing.
The NTC has promised to hold elections after eight months for a national assembly that will spend a year drawing up a new constitution before a parliamentary poll.
Libya has been the first NATO operation in which the United States sought to step back from a leading role and prompted some sharp criticism from Washington of the capabilities of allies after they failed to secure the quick results hoped for.
The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, and the alliance's top operations commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, hailed the success of the mission on Monday in a commentary in the New York Times, but reiterated the need for allies to address the shortcomings in capabilities it revealed.
While calling it a "true alliance effort" in which non-U.S. allies flew 75 percent of the air missions, they said the United States played a leading role in destroying Libya's air defense system and providing crucial resources, including the vast majority of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and the aerial refueling assets.
Fourteen NATO members and four other states provided naval and air forces, but only eight NATO nations took part in combat missions. Some big NATO states, notably Germany, had opposed the intervention.
Daalder and Stavridis said U.S. planes flew a quarter of all sorties over Libya, France and Britain a third of all missions -- most of them strike operations -- and the remaining participants flew roughly 40 percent.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Writing by Barry Malone; Editing by Tim Pearce)