By David Brunnstrom and Denis Dyomkin
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - NATO's chief defended the alliance's Libya operation on Monday during a visit to Russia, which has accused the Western coalition conducting air strikes of overstepping its U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke during a break from a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also met South African President Jacob Zuma to discuss Libya.
International leaders are puzzling over how to end the war in Libya, where despite three months of NATO bombing Muammar Gaddafi has resisted calls to give up power in the face of a rebel offensive aimed at ending his 41-year rule.
Russia abstained from the U.N. Security Council resolution in March that authorized military intervention to protect civilians. It has criticized the NATO operation, but also joined Western nations in calling for Gaddafi to give up power.
"We look at Libya's future practically identically, and everyone would like Libya to be a modern state, naturally, and a sovereign and democratic state," Medvedev said at a meeting with Rasmussen and envoys from NATO nations.
Medvedev, whose country has expressed concern about NATO's increasing involvement in conflicts abroad, called the Libya crisis a real-life test of NATO's new Strategic Concept. Since the end of its Cold War confrontation with Moscow, the U.S.-backed alliance has been adapting its mission.
On Libya, the Kremlin has emphasized its support for African Union and U.N. peacemaking efforts.
"The Russian side has voiced some concerns related to our operation in Libya. We have stressed that we are carrying out this operation in strict conformity with the U.N. Security Council resolution," Rasmussen told reporters.
"We have been mandated to take all necessary means to protect civilians against attacks and so far we have been very successful in protecting civilians," he said.
Asked about the rebel declaration that Gaddafi is welcome to remain in Libya under international supervision if he gives up all power, Rasmussen made no direct statement about NATO's position on the offer.
"It is for the Libyan people, possibly assisted by the international community, to find a political solution to the problems in Libya and I would stress that the only acceptable solution would be to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people and see progress in a transition to a fully fledged democracy," he said.
On Friday, African Union leaders offered to host talks between the Libyan government and rebels and Zuma said at the time that the talks would start soon in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where the AU is headquartered.
Sitting down with Medvedev, Zuma said he wanted to share "what the AU's thinking is, what the AU's plan is" on Libya.
At a trilateral meeting along with Rasmussen, Zuma presented the African Union's peace plan for Libya, according to a NATO official who said the alliance would study the plan. None of the parties discussed details publicly.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)