By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday defended NATO against criticism from Russia, China and other countries, which accuse the alliance of overstepping its U.N. mandate to protect civilians in Libya.
It was an unusual move by the cautious head of the United Nations, who will complete his first five-year term at the end of the month and begin his second term in January. Ban has rarely taken public positions that pit him with some permanent members of the 15-nation Security Council against others.
"Security Council resolution 1973, I believe, was strictly enforced within the limit, within the mandate," Ban told reporters in New York. "This military operation done by the NATO forces was strictly within (resolution) 1973."
"I believe this is what we have seen, and there should be no misunderstanding on that," he said.
Resolution 1973, adopted in March 2011, authorized U.N. member states to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians threatened by the government's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators inspired by "Arab Spring" uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa -- the so-called BRICS nations -- have repeatedly accused NATO of using the mandate to protect civilians as a cover to pursue regime change by aiding rebel forces who ousted and eventually killed Libya's long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The United States, Britain, France and other NATO members have defended NATO, which says it adhered strictly to its Security Council mandate during its 8-month military operation, in which Britain and France launched repeated air strikes against Gaddafi's forces.
The United States was initially at the forefront of NATO's Libya operation alongside France and Britain, but later took a lower-profile role focusing on activities such as real-time intelligence gathering and surveillance.
BAN URGES ACTION ON SYRIA
Ban said none of the Arab leaders ousted during the Arab Spring uprisings were removed with outside help.
"These changes of regime were done by the people, not by the intervention of any foreign forces, including the United Nations," Ban said.
In addition to Gaddafi, the long-serving presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were forced out, paving the way for elections that Western nations hope will install democratic governments. Yemen's president was also forced to cede power to his deputy.
Ban said he was pleased that the concept of taking action to protect civilians -- often referred to as the "responsibility to protect" or R2P -- appeared to be gaining momentum.
But he reiterated that some kind of concerted international action was needed on Syria, where the United Nations says more than 5,000 civilians have been killed in a government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters this year.
"This cannot go on," he said. "In the name of humanity, it is time for the international community to act."
Last month, Russia and China vetoed a European-drafted Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Syrian clampdown and threatened President Bashar al-Assad's government with possible sanctions.