Hammerl: envoy vows to investigate death
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Austrian ambassador to Libya Dorothea Auer’s tireless diplomacy helped to secure the release of four foreign journalists in Libya this week, one of which she hoped would be South African photographer Anton Hammerl.
Even now that the world knows that he was shot by Libyan forces and left to die in the desert on April 5, the day he disappeared, she is determined to discover what exactly happened to the photojournalist.
The South African government also wants to find him and bring his body back to South Africa so his family can give him a decent burial, as Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said on Friday.
She condemned the Libyan government at the highest level – even suggesting this included Muammar Gaddafi himself – for giving South Africa false assurances all along that Hammerl was alive.
But Auer is not quite sure. She said yesterday she thought it was possible that the Libyan authorities might have mistaken Hammerl for a British journalist called Nigel Chandler who was released with American journalists James Foley and Clair Gillis and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo this week.
Foley, Gillis and Brabo had contacted their families from prison in Libya some time ago, so their identities were known. But Chandler is a freelancer and a loner and so, astonishingly, no one had been looking for him, Auer said. “When we asked him why, he said his family and friends were used to him going off for three or four months at a time, so no one was worried.
“You meet all sorts of people in this business,” Auer said in a telephone interview yesterday from Djerba, just across the western Libyan border, in Tunisia.
Auer has been involved with the South African government in the search for Hammerl since soon after he went missing, because he held dual Austrian-South African citizenship.
She has been based in Djerba since February when she was forced to evacuate her embassy in Tripoli along with most other diplomats.
From Djerba, which is close to Tripoli, she manages to monitor what is happening in Libya.
Her main contact in the Libyan government has been Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi, who had helped secure the release of the four journalists.
Auer and a senior official from South Africa’s Libyan embassy met Foley, Gillis, Brabo and Chandler in a Djerba hotel on Thursday night, after they had been released and travelled by road from Tripoli.
It was then that they discovered the shocking news that Hammerl had been shot in the stomach by Libyan soldiers about 3km east of Brega, near Benghazi, on April 5.
Foley told them how the rebels they were with had fled when Libyan armoured vehicles appeared over a rise and Libyan soldiers deliberately began shooting at them, despite knowing they were journalists.
He said Hammerl had been shot in the stomach and fatally injured.
The Libyan soldiers left him dead or dying in the sand when they threw the others into a truck and drove them off to prison.
Auer said it was hard to be completely sure that the Libyans knew they were journalists. She noted that Brabo had told Spanish television that Hammerl was climbing on to a rebel vehicle when he was shot, so the Libyans might have mistaken him for a rebel soldier.
Auer said she believed that Obeidi had an interest in trying to project the most positive image possible for his country at this time, suggesting it would not have been in his interest to deliberately lie about Hammerl.
But she said that in the confusion of the war in Libya, politicians such as Obeidi have limited power, influence and knowledge.
She noted that during the course of the imprisonment of the four journalists released this week, the Libyan authorities had confused Foley and Chandler at one point. Since Hammerl was living in Britain at the time of his disappearance it was possible that the Libyans might also have confused him with Chandler.
Auer stressed that she was not trying to exonerate the Libyans, but just to understand their actions.