By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Libya's newly appointed leader apologized at the United Nations on Thursday for the crimes of ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi and told critics that supporting the Arab Spring was worth it.
During his address to the U.N. General Assembly, Mohammed Magarief, leader of Libya's ruling national congress, said the Libyan people were moderate and the country would never be home to extremist groups.
"I stand before you today, before the entire world, to apologize for all the harm, all the crimes committed by that despot against so many innocents, to apologize for the extortion and terrorism he meted out on so many states," Magarief said.
A NATO bombing campaign last year, approved by the U.N. Security Council, helped underpin an "Arab Spring" uprising that ended Gaddafi's dictatorship and finally claimed his life in October.
"Some wonder was the Arab Spring worthy of support?" said Magarief.
"To them, I would say would it have been better for the corrupt dictatorial regimes to remain in place for decades more, oppressing and .... violating some of the most fundamental human rights? Should they have been allowed to continue pillaging the wealth of the people, leading some ... to extremism?" he said.
The killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in what Washington has called a "terrorist" attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on September 11 has heightened Western concerns about the power of Islamist militants in Libya.
Magarief described the deaths of the Americans as a "loss for Libya."
"This catastrophe will only increase our solidarity to entrench the hopes and objectives in which Ambassador Chris Stevens believed. We shall defeat the plots of the backward terrorists who do not represent Libya," he said.
At less than half an hour long, Magarief's speech was shorter and less dramatic than Gaddafi's one and only appearance at the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, when he spoke for 1 hour and 35 minutes. Gaddafi touched on subjects ranging from the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the U.S. invasion of Grenada and free medicine for the world's children.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said on Wednesday the death of Gaddafi was as tragic as that of Stevens, as he delivered a scathing critique of U.S., U.N. and NATO actions.
He said the U.N. Security Council had allowed itself to be "abused" last year by authorizing "all necessary measures" - diplomatic code for military intervention - to protect civilians in Libya in the NATO operation that eventually toppled Gaddafi's government and led to his death at the hands of rebels.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)