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S.Africa: Libya fed 'misinformation' on journalist

By Jorge Sainz

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 20 2011 11:05 a.m. MDT

FILE - This undated file photo shows photojournalist Anton Hammerl, who has South African and Austrian citizenship and went missing in Libya in early April 2011. Hammerl's family says they now believe he was killed in the Libyan desert by Moammar Gadhafi's forces. Family spokeswoman Bronwyn Friedlander tells The Associated Press that journalists recently freed by the Libyan regime reported that they were with Hammerl when he was shot in a remote location on April 5.

Saturday Star - Independent Newspapers Ltd, File) SOUTH AFRICA OUT, Associated Press

PRETORIA, South Africa — South Africa's top diplomat 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.

South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters that Libya still has not come forward with the truth. Anton Hammerl's death was confirmed Thursday by journalists who said Hammerl was shot, and left to die in the desert as Gadhafi's forces took his colleagues away.

"We kept getting reassurance and misinformation throughout," Nkoana-Mashabane told a news conference in South Africa's capital. Referring to Gadhafi, she said the assurances came "at one stage from himself, yes, to say 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.

Colleagues of the South African journalist, held by Libyan forces from the day of the shooting until this week, had been afraid to speak of his death until they were safely out of Libya.

In Madrid, Manuel Varela, one of the journalists released by Libya 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.

Hammerl, 41, was initially reported to have been captured together with Varela and Americans Clare Morgana Gillis and James Foley.

Visibly upset, 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.

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 said he, Gillis and Foley found shelter from the firing but that 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.'"

He said he and the two others then got caught and were 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.

Nkoana-Mashabane deflected a question about whether South Africa would respond to being misinformed by ejecting Libya's ambassador to South Africa by saying the ambassador has defected to the Libyan 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.

Varela; Gillis, who freelances for The Atlantic and USA Today; and Foley, who writes for the Boston-based news agency: GlobalPost, were freed earlier this week.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said journalists covering the fighting in territory controlled by Gadhafi have been particularly at risk, but that the front line has been fluid, making it difficult for reporters to stay in relatively safe areas.

CPJ Mideast specialist Mohamed Abdel Dayem said more than a dozen journalists, including U.S. freelancer Matthew VanDyk, are missing in Libya. 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.

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

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Sainz contributed to this report from Madrid.

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