OTTAWA - Many Western leaders — Prime Minister Stephen Harper, included — have all but said that the only way the Libyan crisis will truly end is with dictator Moammar Gaddafi's life.
But the Canadian general who commands the NATO-led international bombing campaign says that might not be so simple.
Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard steadfastly maintained Wednesday that he doesn't have orders to kill Gadhafi, even though he plans to keep bombing the capital, Tripoli.
"I do not have a mandate to engage Gaddafi directly. I engage command and control. I engage valid, bona fide military targets and will continue to run this campaign that way," Bouchard said via teleconference from his base in Naples, Italy.
But is it reasonable to believe that Gaddafi could be killed — as collateral damage — during a targeted strike on a military target or a piece of infrastructure that is deemed legitimate?
Not likely, the plain-spoken general says.
"Gaddafi is hiding in hospitals, he's hiding in mosques. He's hiding under various covers, everywhere. He is keeping well clear of command and control nodes in the area. That is what I believe."
The NATO mission is backed by a United Nations resolution that is intended to protect civilians from their despotic leader. But more than three months of bombing have resulted in a stalemate, with rebels now entrenched in eastern Libyan and with Gaddafi controlling the western portion of the country, including Tripoli.
Increasing attacks on Tripoli recently have raised speculation that NATO is really targeting Gaddafi as its final end-game gambit.
Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has called for a pause in the campaign to allow access for humanitarian aid. Frattini's latest pitch came after he questioned NATO's credibility following an alliance bomb misfire Sunday, killing civilians.
Bouchard rejected the call for a ceasefire, saying he didn't want to give Gaddafi's forces any chance to re-arm.
"We have to ensure it is not an opportunity for the Gaddafi regime to move troops and move equipment towards the front so that we find ourselves after a brief period of truce with an even greater problem than we have today."
He stressed that he is taking personal responsibility for ensuring innocent civilians aren't caught in the crossfire.
"As far as collateral damage, I can assure you that we continue to take extreme care. We go through a very rigorous process when it comes to the selection of targets based on solid intelligence," Bouchard said.
"We've had strikes within 150 meters of a children's amusement park with zero — zero — casualties," he added.
"Each of those deliberate targets are approved by me throughout the campaign, so I assure you that I remain committed to ensuring that we keep collateral damage to a minimum."
As for keeping aid moving, Bouchard said Gaddafi controls whether humanitarian aid gets to his people.
"At the end of the day, if the Gaddafi regime wants their population to receive humanitarian assistance all they have to do is let the shipment go by."
He said NATO forces will not stop deliveries of food and other supplies, and is co-ordinating closely with aid agencies.
"We continue to allow the movement of humanitarian shipments in and out of Tripoli. We've had shipments of wheat, flour and other humanitarian aid moving in and out of Tripoli. Our mission is an arms embargo and not to prevent humanitarian assistance from going through."
Bouchard could not say when the mission will end. He brushed aside any comparison with the other NATO air campaign that most closely resembles the current Libya mission — the 1999 bombardment to help Kosovar Albanians, which lasted 78 days.
"The Kosovo campaign was in a much, much smaller country. This is a country the size of Alaska," he said.
Libya's ammunition stores and its build-up of military forces were "significantly greater" than was encountered in the Kosovo campaign, he added.
Gaddafi, Bouchard said, can end the bombardment any time he wishes, by stopping the attacks on his own people in a verifiable manner.
"The answer lies with the regime themselves and whether they will opt to stop violence against the population, because that is the extent of the mission," said the general.