UNITED NATIONS — US President Barack Obama led a warm United Nations welcome Tuesday for the Libyan leaders who deposed Moamer Kadhafi, vowing the world would stand with them as they rebuild their country.
But he also pledged NATO would carry out air strikes as long as civilians there are “threatened” and urged Kadhafi supporters still fighting to lay down their arms.
With the new Libyan flag flying at the UN headquarters, interim government leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil thanked all nations who contributed to the “success of the Libyan revolution” which he revealed had left at least 25,000 dead.
At the special summit, the United Nations and world leaders all promised to help the new government with its campaign to take the remaining territory held by Kadhafi fighters and to move towards democracy and free elections.
Jalil received a new boost when the African Union finally recognized the National Transitional Council (NTC) after weeks of foot-dragging which had caused divisions on the continent.
Amid fresh battles for towns still in the hands of Kadhafi loyalists, UN leader Ban Ki-moon said “the first priority must be peace and security.”
“So long as the Libyan people are being threatened, the NATO-led mission to protect them will continue,” Obama told the summit, at which he announced the US embassy would be reopening in Tripoli and the US ambassador returning.
“And those still holding out must understand — the old regime is over, and it is time to lay down your arms and join the new Libya.”
But fugitive strongman Kadhafi issued the latest in a series of defiant challenges with an audio message calling the new government a “charade.”
“Do not rejoice and don’t believe that one regime has been overthrown and another imposed with the help of air and maritime strikes,” Kadhafi added.
The exact whereabouts of Kadhafi, who ruled the north African nation with an iron fist for four decades, are not known.
But Obama said: “Today, the Libyan people are writing a new chapter in the life of their nation. After four decades of darkness, they can walk the streets, free from a tyrant.”
The US president described Libya as “a lesson in what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one.”
But he stressed there must be a democratic transition after four decades of one-man rule that is “peaceful, inclusive and just.”
Jalil told the summit how the revolution had left 25,000 “martyrs” and at least 50,000 wounded during the eight months of fighting.
But he thanked the United Nations, which passed sanctions against Kadhafi, and all the countries that helped “the success of the Libyan revolution.”
Without mentioning the NATO airstrikes, he said the international assistance had been crucial because of the “huge amount of weaponry that Kadhafi deployed against his people.”
Jalil vowed the new Libya would be a “vibrant” democracy that respects regional peace and security.
Obama and the UN leader, who had private meetings with Jalil, urged him to make sure that abuses against black African immigrants were ended.
The NTC chairman said many Kadhafi regime members had been detained and some had been freed again. Many would face justice but Jalil insisted all would get a “fair trial.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a plea for support for all of the Arab countries where people have stood up against strongarm leaders, saying it had given the international community a “responsibility to take action.”
Sarkozy indicated that the action in Libya and UN action in Ivory Coast this year should be a warning to other strongarm leaders.
“Let all dictators be aware that henceforth the international community is not just going to speak, but will take action and where necessary will take action, if necessary with weapons in their hands in the service of democracy,” he told the summit.
“We, the European countries, tolerated regimes that we should never have tolerated,” Sarkozy said.
“I have confidence in the future of Libya. There will be highs and lows, but no one can turn their backs on those who freed themselves with weapons in their hands,” Sarkozy declared.