UNITED NATIONS — 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 on Friday would confirm its earlier, preliminary decision to end operations Oct. 31.
He said after meeting 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."
The alliance is ready to assist the new Libyan government in the transformation to democracy, particularly in the areas of defense and security sector reforms, Fogh Rasmussen said. "I wouldn't expect new tasks beyond that."
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.
The resolution ends the U.N. authorization for military action just before midnight local time 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." Fellow council member South Africa's U.N. ambassador echoed his view.
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 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 to halt Gadhafi forces that were engaged in offensive actions against its people," she said.
As the air campaign unfolded, she said, "there were those that found it increasingly uncomfortable what it was they had agreed to. But to suggest that somehow they were misled is false."
Rice said she believes history will judge the Libyan resolution and actions that followed "to be a proud chapter in the Security Council's history."
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."
The resolution adopted Thursday expressed concern at the proliferation of arms in Libya and its potential impact on regional peace and said the Security Council would address this issue "expeditiously."
Ian Martin, the top U.N. envoy to Libya, told the Security Council Wednesday that Libya under Gadhafi accumulated the largest known stockpile of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles in any non-producing country. While thousands were destroyed during NATO operations, he said the U.N. is increasingly concerned "over the looting and likely proliferation" of these weapons and other munitions, as well as a spate of newly laid mines within the country.
Martin expressed concern over command and control of chemical and nuclear material sites though he said the interim government's forces appear to be controlling them. He said additional undeclared chemical weapons sites have been located as well.
A Russian-drafted resolution circulated to council members Thursday and obtained by the Associated Press calls on Libyan authorities "to take all necessary steps to prevent the proliferation of all arms and related material," including shoulder-fired missiles.
It also calls on the government to destroy Libyan stockpiles of chemical weapons in coordination with international authorities.
Diplomats said the resolution would be put to a vote early next week.
Associated Press reporter Dave Rising contributed to this story from Berlin.