Libya becomes U.N. council president

( Reuters ) - Libya took over the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday in a major step back to global respectability after decades as a pariah of the West.

The North African country was elected in October, as were Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Croatia and Vietnam, to sit on the council in 2008-09 after the United States, which foiled two earlier bids by Tripoli, decided not to block it this time.

By an alphabetical accident, Libya becomes president of the 15-nation body from its very first day as a member, succeeding Italy. Each country is president for a month, the rotation going in English alphabetical order of names.

Libya and Burkina Faso had been unopposed after being endorsed by the African regional grouping for two African seats that fell vacant on December 31.

The Security Council is the powerhouse of the United Nations, with the ability to send peacekeeping troops around the world and impose sanctions on specific countries.

Unlike the five permanent members -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China -- the nonpermanent members have no individual veto. But an alliance of seven of them can stop a resolution even if the big powers want it.

Libya has only recently rehabilitated itself in Western eyes from an accused sponsor of terrorism that organized the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland, which killed 270 people.

The case led to U.N. sanctions on Libya, which, under a gradual shift of course by leader Muammar Gaddafi, eventually turned over suspects and admitted civil responsibility. Also key was Gaddafi's 2003 decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction programs.

In July, Libya ended a diplomatic standoff by freeing five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor held since 1999 on charges, which Western countries ridiculed, that they infected Libyan children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Libyan and other diplomats said they expected the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, where the United Nations and African Union are trying to deploy a peace force, to be a key council issue in January. Other countries will be scrutinizing Libya's handling because of its interest as a neighbor of Sudan.

Another major topic will be Serbia's Kosovo province. But diplomats said Iran could be less important because big powers must overcome divisions on possible new sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program before the issue reaches the council.

Council presidents can vote as they please, but must follow strict procedures in management of business and be neutral in public statements. Nevertheless they can wield important influence on scheduling the agenda and other formalities.

Libya has been on the Security Council once before -- in 1976-77 -- and diplomats said its envoys had been relearning the role, attending closed consultations in the past two months and bringing in extra staff to help with the presidency.

Countries that left the Security Council on December 31 were Congo Republic, Ghana, Peru, Qatar and Slovakia. Remaining on it are Belgium, Indonesia, Italy, Panama and South Africa.

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