S.Africa: Libya fed 'misinformation' on journalist

AP News
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Posted: May 20, 2011 1:46 PM
S.Africa: Libya fed 'misinformation' on journalist

South Africa charged Friday that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had provided misinformation about a journalist whose death in the north African country was only recently confirmed after weeks of anguish about his whereabouts.

Anton Hammerl's death was confirmed Thursday by journalists who said the 41-year-old photographer had been shot and then left to die in the desert as Gadhafi's forces took his colleagues away.

"We are particularly disappointed by the dishonesty of the Libyan government, which assured our government that our citizen was alive and in custody," South Africa's governing African National Congress Party said in a statement. "This raised our hopes and that of the family and friends of Hammerl, only to be crushed later."

At a news conference in South Africa's capital, South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said assurances had even come at one stage from Gadhafi himself "that they are all alive and that they are well."

"Mr. Hammerl's death is a very unfortunate act, and the government and the people of South Africa condemn the perpetrators of this heinous action," the minister said.

Hammerl's relatives said in a statement posted on Facebook Thursday that they now believe the Libyan government knew the photographer's "fate all along and chose to cover it up." He and his wife, Penny Sukhraj, have two boys, a 14-week-old and a 7-year-old.

Hammerl is the fifth journalist killed in Libya since fighting began in February, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

His colleagues had been held by Libyan forces from the day of the shooting until this week, and had been afraid to speak of his death until they were safely out of Libya.

In Madrid, one of the journalists released after being held for more than a month gave an emotional recount of how he saw Hammerl badly wounded following an attack by Libyan forces on rebel soldiers the journalists had been traveling with.

Manuel Varela said that he and his colleagues were on the front line when the attack occurred and were probably a little too close. He said the rebels quickly fled leaving the journalists stranded.

Hammerl was initially reported to have been captured together with Varela, and Americans Clare Morgana Gillis and James Foley.

Varela, who goes by the name of Manu Brabo, said he tried to get off the road and search for cover with Gillis and Foley but that Hammerl had tried to get a lift with the fleeing rebels.

He, Gillis and Foley found shelter from the firing but when they shouted to Hammerl to ask was he all right Varela said: "Anton shouts 'No, they're firing on us. They're unloading a lot on us. We are the target.'"

Varela, said he and the two others then were captured and beaten up by forces loyal to Gadhafi.

"When they putting me into the van I see Anton who is pale and his guts are hanging out," said Varela. "And that's all I can say. I don't know what happened to him."

Varela said that he was placed for 12 days in solitary confinement and was then placed in different detention centers, sometimes with other detained journalists.

Hammerl, born in South Africa, had an Austrian father and both South African and Austrian citizenship, and lived in London with his family.

Austria's ambassador to South Africa, Otto Ditz, said his government never received "any hint from the Libyan side that Anton was not alive."

He and the South African foreign minister said they would keep pressing for information, including details on where Hammerl's body is, so that he can be brought home for burial.

South Africa's foreign minister deflected a question about whether South Africa would eject Libya's ambassador in response, saying that the Libyan ambassador has defected to the rebel side.

"Are we planning a confrontation with the Libyan government?" she said, without answering her own question.

The photographer's colleagues had pressed South African government officials to pursue information about him from the Libyans.

Before leaving South Africa five years ago, Hammerl worked for such newspapers as Johannesburg's Star, which has been publishing his photo daily to ensure his case was not forgotten. Colleagues also have held candlelight vigils.

Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Mideast specialist with the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that more than a dozen journalists are still missing in Libya, including U.S. freelancer Matthew VanDyk. Others include Libyan reporters or Libyans who worked as assistants to foreign journalists. Abdel Dayem said it has been especially difficult to get information about the missing Libyans.

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Sainz contributed to this report from Madrid.