‘We didn’t know Hammerl was dead’

2011-05-20 08:50

The SA government did not know photographer Anton Hammerl had been shot dead, international relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela said today.

News of his death came as a shock, he added.

“We didn’t know where he was but we were working on the assumption that he was alive,” Monyela said.

He said the minister had sent officials, including the South African ambassador, back to Tripoli in Libya to try and ascertain his whereabouts and ultimately try and negotiate his release.

Monyela said the department had days ago already clarified a quote in The Star newspaper by International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane that he was alive.

Monyela said the minister did not say that. She said the department was working on the assumption he was alive.

It was “really unfair” to blame the SA government for the situation now, he added. He pointed out that a report a few weeks ago claiming that two independent sources said he was safe had come from the Austrian government, not from South African officials.

Hammerl was a South African with Austrian parents.

The DA today questioned the South African government’s role in communicating news about Hammerl.

It emerged this morning that was killed on the day of his capture, more than six weeks ago, despite government assurances that he was safe.

The Libyan government had for weeks said Hammerl (41) was alive and said he would be released on Wednesday.

His family only found out about his death last night, after being contacted by two journalists who were with him and who said he was shot in the Libyan desert.

“It is unclear what the South African government did or did not know. It is, however, simply unfathomable, and difficult to contemplate, that the minister of international relations would have given the family false hope, by claiming Hammerl was still alive, last week,” Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said.

“It is equally galling that the minister cancelled an emergency meeting on this matter because, in the words of department spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, she had ‘election commitments’.”

But Monyela told Sapa the meeting was postponed to this morning because of the elections.

Zille said that “in the immediate aftermath of this sort of terrible news our focus must fall on the family and friends, but profoundly serious questions need to be asked of Minister Nkoana-Mashabane, and indeed President Jacob Zuma, in the weeks to come”.

The minister was expected to address the media on the matter in Pretoria at 9.30am.

The Hammerl family released a statement in the early hours this morning saying they had been informed Hammerl had been shot on April 5.

“Anton was shot by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in an extremely remote location in the Libyan desert. According to eyewitnesses, his injuries were such that he could not have survived without medical attention.

“Words are simply not enough to describe the unbelievable trauma the Hammerl family is going through,” the statement read.

“From the moment Anton disappeared in Libya we have lived in hope as the Libyan officials assured us that they had Anton. It is intolerably cruel that Gaddafi loyalists have known Anton’s fate all along and chose to cover it up.”

Hammerl, who used to work for The Star newspaper, was initially reported to have been captured by militia loyal to Libyan leader Gaddafi near Brega on April 5.

His wife Penny Sukraj was told by American journalists Clare Morgana Gillis and James Foley of the shooting.

The pair had been released from Libyan custody and spoke to her from Tunisia last night. They were with Hammerl when they came under fire in the Libyan desert near the town of Brega.

Hammerl was shot in the stomach, according to family friend Bronwyn Friedlander.

She said assurances of Hammerl’s capture in Libya, apparently given to the South African and Austrian governments, were “incredibly cruel”.

GlobalPost.com reported that Hammerl had gone with Gillis, Foley and Spanish Photographer Manu Brabo with the intention of spending a night with the rebels at a camp east of Brega.

Foley told GlobalPost.com the four had exited their car and before they could get back into the car the rebels had done an about-turn and fled approaching Gaddafi forces, leaving them behind.

He said Hammerl was closest to the fighting and that bullets were hitting the ground around the four.

According to Foley when he asked Hammerl if he was okay “no” was the only answer he received.

After the third barrage of shots Hammerl’s cries ceased.

The journalists surrendered to the rebels and the three were tied up and thrown into the back of a bakkie.

Foley saw Hammerl lying in the sand. He said Hammerl was shot in the abdomen and bleeding severely.

While in captivity, Foley said the three journalists wrestled with how to communicate the news of Hammerl’s death to his family.

“We knew collectively that if we spoke about Hammerl’s death while we were detained, then we would be in greater danger ourselves. But now that we’re free, it’s our moral imperative to tell the story of this great journalist and father,” he was quoted as saying.

National Press Club chairperson Yusuf Abramjee said Hammerl’s death was a shock.

“Our prayers and thoughts are with Anton’s family, friends and colleagues. We are told he was shot on April 5. Why did it take so long to confirm his death? Anton will always be remembered as an outstanding photographer and a good human being. The news is devastating.

“To the Hammerl family, please accept the condolences of the entire media fraternity.”

The SA National Editors Forum said it was “devastated” at the news.

“He was a superb photographer and a brave journalist who always went out a thousand extra miles to bring home news and images to the world. South Africa’s journalistic community joins Anton’s family and friends in mourning his death,” Sanef said.

The Cape Town press club also extended its “deepest condolences to Anton’s family, friends and colleagues at this sad time”.

Last month well-known photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed after coming under fire in the besieged Libyan town of Misrata.

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