UNITED NATIONS — Russia urged the U.N. Security Council on Thursday to investigate civilian deaths in Libya from NATO's bombing campaign, a move the United States immediately dismissed as "a cheap stunt" to distract from Moscow's failure to condemn the Syrian government's ongoing killing of protesters.
The sharp exchange reflected the deep division in the council over the NATO campaign which the U.S., France, Germany and others hailed for saving hundreds of thousands of Libyan lives, but which Russia, China and the African Union have strongly criticized.
Russia and its supporters argue that NATO misused the limited council resolution imposing a no-fly zone and authorizing the protection of civilians as a pretext to promote regime change in Libya. Libya's longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was ousted after 42 years, captured and killed in October.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said a council-mandated investigation is essential "given the fact that initially we were led to believe by NATO leaders there are zero civilian casualties of their bombing campaign."
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who stepped to the microphone after Churkin, said: "Oh, the bombast and bogus claims."
"Is everyone sufficiently distracted from Syria now and the killing that is happening before our very eyes?" she said.
"I think it's not an exaggeration to say that this is something of a cheap stunt to divert attention from other issues and to obscure the success of NATO and its partners — and indeed the Security Council — in protecting the people of Libya," Rice said.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud, standing beside her, said there were two ongoing investigations of NATO's actions in Libya, one by a U.N. Human Rights Council which is scheduled to report in March and the second by the International Criminal Court.
"We are not talking about years ... and in the two cases they are absolutely competent to handle the NATO military operations," he said. "So why ask for a third one while we don't have any investigation committee in Syria, when in the last 3-4 days more than 250 people have been killed."
Last month, NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu in Brussels said NATO is confident its forces carried out the campaign "in full compliance with international law."
NATO leaders have hailed the precision with which the mission was carried out, citing the small number of civilian deaths caused by the bombing as evidence of its success. Representatives of the military alliance based in Brussels have said that all NATO air strikes in Libya were aimed at military targets.
Churkin, this month's council president, insisted that he was not diverting attention because Thursday's council meeting was on Libya and heard a briefing by videolink from U.N. envoy Ian Martin in Tripoli.
Martin said "the past few weeks have witnessed a series of armed clashes of varying seriousness, giving rise to growing popular pressure, in particular in Tripoli, to put in place security arrangements which do not rely heavily on the armed brigades" who fought in the uprising against Gadhafi.
Martin warned that unless the security situation is addressed quickly and effectively, "the legitimate authority of the state" could be undermined.
In what many saw as a backlash against the council's authorization of military action to protect civilians in Libya, Russia and China vetoed a European-backed resolution in October threatening sanctions against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime if it didn't immediately halt its military crackdown against civilians.
Last week, Russia surprised fellow council members with a proposed new resolution calling for an end to the violence that the U.N. estimates has killed 5,000 people over nine months.
Western members welcomed the move, but said it didn't go far enough because it didn't mention sanctions and equated violence against civilians with violence against the government and its security forces.
Britain, France, Germany and the U.S. have proposed amendments to the Russian text and Churkin said he hopes to have a new version on Friday.
But he said the Western nations wanted to send "completely different messages" and diplomats were pessimistic about quick agreement on a Syria resolution.