LONDON (Reuters) - Western leaders Thursday hailed the death of Muammar Gaddafi as a moment of liberation for Libya and held up their own role in the downfall of the flamboyant North African strongman.
Some countries warned Libya’s new leaders they still faced tough days ahead, but the overriding sentiment was relief over the success of the uprising, backed by a NATO air and sea campaign and a U.N. Security Council vote.
Libya’s interim government said Gaddafi was killed by fighters who overran his final bastion of Sirte Thursday, at the climax of a uprising against his 42-year hold over the major oil producer.
“A new Libya is born today ... We have to rejoice about what we have done,” Italy’s Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa told Sky Italia television.
“We have prevented this conflict, just a few steps from our shores, from causing thousands more deaths. Without the NATO intervention, imagine what could have happened.”
Other players in the NATO campaign queued up to praise Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) — and the success of their own mission.
“People in Libya today have an even greater chance after this news of building themselves a strong and democratic future,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“I’m proud of the role that Britain has played in helping them to bring that about, and I pay tribute to the bravery of the Libyans who helped to liberate their country,” he said.
Cameron said it was a time to remember Gaddafi’s victims, including British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher, killed by a shot fired from Libya’s embassy in London in 1984, and the people who died in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.
Gaddafi’s death also raised hopes for the resurrection of the country’s lucrative oil industry, hit by the conflict.
“If the national reconciliation happens, then Libya has the best conditions for a successful future — extremely talented, well-educated people and access to rich natural resources,” said Austria’s Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger.
As tens of thousands of Libyan fighters took to the streets to celebrate the death of their former leader, a senior French official described the day as “a definitive victory for NATO.”
“The urgency now in Libya is to disarm the various sides and put in place the democratic process,” said Axel Poniatowski, president of the French parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
Gaddafi was the third leader to fall to a series of “Arab Spring” uprisings that have already unseated the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt and shaken Syria, Yemen and other states.
On the streets of Cairo, people said Gaddafi’s downfall would be a warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who has launched a crackdown against months of protest against his rule.
The response to Gaddafi’s death appeared to be more muted south of Africa’s Saharan desert divide where some leaders have watched the Arab protests with concern.
“This is very sad news if it is confirmed. It is a shame for Africa that someone who has led his country and even the continent’s destiny, should die like this,” said Senegal’s minister for communications, Moustapha Guirassy.
Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar, John Irish in Paris, Sylvia Westall in Vienna, Tim Castle in London; Writing by Andrew Heavens