WARSAW — The head of NATO said on Thursday he did not think it was too late to intervene in Libya but much depends on the United Nations.
"Time is of the essence, time is rapidly running out, but I don't think it's too late," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference in Warsaw.
"Very much will depend on the U.N. Security Council decision," he said, referring to deliberations at the world body.
"I can't imagine the international community and the United Nations standing idly by if the Libyan regime continues to attack its civilian population," he said.
Rasmussen said earlier on Thursday that NATO did not want to intervene in Libya was but was planning for all eventualities.
He reiterated NATO's conditions for intervention — that there should be a "demonstrable need" for the alliance to act, regional support and a firm legal basis, "which I assume would be a U.N. mandate".
Divisions in the U.N. Security Council have slowed the international community's response to the fighting in Libya. The United States, initially cool on the idea of foreign military intervention, has now raised the possibility of air strikes to halt Gaddafi's forces.
Rasmussen said on his Twitter page that the sooner the United Nations could reach an agreement on Libya the better, and that NATO "stands ready to protect the civilian population" if the alliance's conditions were met.
"If Gaddafi prevails, it will send a clear signal that violence pays," Rasmussen said.
The former Danish prime minister said the ex-communist states of central Europe could be a role model for nations in North Africa and the Middle East in their fight for democracy and freedom of expression.
"When I look at Central and Eastern Europe today, it gives me tremendous optimism for what I hope can be achieved in North Africa and the Middle East," he said at a seminar attended by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and defense ministers from many of NATO's ex-communist member states.
"Because just over two decades ago a wave of change also swept through this region," Rasmussen said, referring to the demise of the region's Soviet-backed communist regimes in 1989.
"Your countries and your people made history. You broke free, you broke down borders, and you broke down a system that had denied you freedom and fundamental human rights."
Rasmussen said NATO needed to consider how it could assist North African countries in their transition to democracy.
Poland's Komorowski drew parallels between the current international uncertainty over how to respond to events in North Africa with the West's reaction to the 1989 protests.
"At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, when Poland and other countries won their freedom, there was a surprise, sometimes a difficult surprise for many who did not know how to react," he said.
Some Western leaders at the time were cool about German reunification and worried about the destabilising impact of the changes sweeping eastern Europe.
"Today we have to think of that first period of transformation we had and to see what could be helpful in solving the situation in North Africa with full respect to all the differences," Komorowski said.
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