Operation Unified Protector, which lasted 211 days, officially ended at 11:59 Tripoli time last night, Stephen McGinty reports
IT BEGAN as a means to avert a massacre and ended when the Libyan uprising won their fighting chance at freedom.
The Nato mission in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, ended last night after 211 days and was described by the Secretary-General as “a successful chapter in Nato’s history”.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen yesterday became the body’s first Secretary-General to visit Tripoli when he arrived in a C130 transport plane, escorted by two French Mirage fighter jets.
For the past seven months a no-fly zone and naval blockade had been enforced in Libya, which ended last night at 11:59 pm Tripoli time (9:59pm in Britain) as agreed by a United Nations Security Council resolution which finally closed the mandate authorising military action.
Mr Fogh Rasmussen congratulated the country’s revolutionaries on their victory. Speaking at a joint press conference with Libya’s outgoing interim leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, he said: “You acted to change your history and your destiny, we acted to protect you. Together we succeeded: Libya is finally free.”
The remarks brought to an end a campaign that, in Mr Fogh Rasmussen’s words, “helped change the region” and free Libya from the tyranical rule of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi .
The campaign began in February when protests against the regime took hold.
As they spread from Benghazi in the east to other towns, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, as many as 1,000 people were massacred by government forces in the space of a week. The Nato intervention was designed to prevent such atrocities, implementing a no-fly zone to protect civilians and rebels from the regime’s helicopter gunships and other threats ot attack, as well enforcing an arms embargo.
Over the past seven months, allied air forces carried out 9,658 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 the embargo. The aim was to give the Libyan people a chance to shape their own future.
The Secretary-General said yesterday: “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.
“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.”
In the end, it was a Nato attack which set in motion the events that finally ended the campaign. While the organisation has denied targeting Gaddafi during the campaign, it was an air strike that hit his convoy as it fled Sirte, leading to his capture and killing on 20 October.
Yesterday, Mr Fogh Rasmussen insisted Nato did not know that Gaddafi was in the convoy. He said: “Gaddafi was not a target of our operations. We hit legitimate military targets and an armed convoy is a legitimate military target because it can constitute a threat to civilians.”
Nato persevered despite a months-long period of stalemate on the battlefield, when it appeared that Libya could become an Afghanistan-like quagmire.
Mr Abdul-Jalil, the outgoing head of Libya’s National Transitional Council, thanked Mr Fogh Rasmussen for the alliance’s support. He said: “Nato operations were successful, with the grace of God and the determination of fighters. 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 today.
In recent weeks, some airlines had resumed limited service, with planes landing at Tripoli’s Metiga military airport, while several flights carrying Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia have taken off from Tripoli’s main airport.
With the Libya mission drawing to a close, Nato spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie said staff temporarily seconded to the headquarters in Naples, Italy, for the operation are being reassigned to regular duties. The alliance concluded its air strikes soon after Gaddafi’s capture and death, but maintained regular air patrols over Libya.
With the end of Nato’s Libya mission, the alliance has faced some calls to intervene in Syria’s uprising. But Mr Fogh Rasmussen said Nato has no intention to get involved there.
“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.”