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Libya conflict: Nato's man against Gaddafi

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Media captionLt Gen Charles Bouchard: 'We will see this mission through'

He is the other man at the centre of the war against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The military commander who ultimately selects and authorises strikes by Nato warplanes.

Outside the alliance few may know his name. But Lt Gen Charlie Bouchard has been charged with directing this complex war, and political leaders in the West are pinning their hopes on him.

We meet the plain-speaking Canadian lieutenant general at Nato's Joint Command Headquarters on the outskirts of Naples.

The military operation is being run from an unremarkable office block. Men and women, in a surprisingly large variety of camouflaged uniforms and flying suits with the badges of different nations, walk with purpose between rooms closed off for security.

There is a sudden rush of activity as Gen Bouchard enters the building for his first morning meeting.

He asks one of his staff if it's going to be another busy day. He reassures them: "We'll get through it." This is a man who clearly does not stand on ceremony - he quickly places his juniors at ease.

Nor does he much like giving interviews. He has covered his black T-shirt with a camouflaged tunic just for the camera. A helicopter pilot by profession, he has the bearing of a man who would not avoid fighting in the trenches.

His pronunciation of a few words suggest that English might not be his first language - he is French Canadian. But he has spent a lot of his career working with the Americans and they clearly did not mind handing over the mission to him.

'Rigorous targeting'

Gen Bouchard believes the alliance is winning the war against Col Gaddafi.

"We have significantly destroyed his military capacity to the point that he now has no capability to run any offensive," he says.

That might sound like good news to Nato members, but he adds that the Libyan army "is shielding themselves and using civilians as human shields".

The general describes a recent video he watched, where a multiple rocket launcher was driven inside a house. On top of that same house a women with a young child was hanging out the washing. He says such examples make life difficult for Nato, but "not impossible".

With the mantra of this mission to avoid civilian casualties, he says the targeting process is "very rigorous". They first collect intelligence from a variety of sources. Spy planes fly over the target for imagery. An entire team - including lawyers - then assesses the mission and matches the appropriate weapon with what needs to be hit.

At the end of the process a recommendation is made and Gen Bouchard then makes the final decision. He says the questions he asks himself last are: Is this necessary? What will this do and what will be the impact on the civilian population?

Image caption Children's deaths are regrettable but air strikes are about saving lives, Gen Bouchard says

The alliance believes that it has largely been successful in avoiding civilian casualties. Nato admits that last week a bomb malfunctioned and strayed. But the general is keen to point out that more than 5,000 bombs dropped by Nato warplanes have hit their target.

'He is the murderer'

I ask about a recent strike on a compound in Sorman to the west of Tripoli in which - the Libyans claim - three children were killed.

He insists that this was clearly a command-and-control centre being used by a senior Gaddafi aide. That aide, he says, would not hesitate to order the deaths of hundreds of civilians. If children were killed - and he seems willing to accept the possibility - he says it's "very regrettable". But the attack, he says, should be seen in the context that this was all about saving lives. The bomb, he said, carefully avoided a mosque and hospital nearby.

It was this attack that prompted Col Gaddafi to denounce Nato on the airwaves as murderers and barbarians.

Gen Bouchard replies: "I believe that he is the murderer. He is the man that's lost the moral authority to command his people."

Does that make him a legitimate target? The general repeats that his orders are not regime change or to kill a head of state.

"My mission is to stop violence against people and I will go all the way down the chain to the man that pulls the trigger," he says. He thinks Col Gaddafi is avoiding military instillation and "hiding" in mosques, hospitals and schools.

As to the strains within Nato, Gen Bouchard seems unperturbed. Does he have the military hardware to carry out the job? Every military commander wants more, he says, before adding that he has sufficient capability to carry out the mission. He will let Nato member states worry about resources.

How long will this take? He says that it's difficult to say, though he does not expect this mission to last years. Calls for a temporary ceasefire, he says, would just give Col Gaddafi's forces the chance to "rearm and reload".

Gen Bouchard ends the interview with an emphatic claim: "We will see this mission through."

He paints a picture of success - a Libya where Nato creates the environment for politics and diplomacy to take root, and with the Libyan people able to decide their own future.

He is clearly relieved when the microphone is switched off. He can get back to the job he wants to do.

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