PRETORIA, South Africa – South Africa's top diplomat charged Friday that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi fed South Africa misinformation about a journalist whose death in the north African country weeks ago has just been confirmed.
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 saw him shot and killed by Gadhafi's forces in early April. 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.
"We kept getting reassurance and misinformation throughout," Nkoana-Mashabane said. 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.
She was joined at a news conference in South Africa's capital by Austria's ambassador to South Africa, Otto Ditz. Hammerl, born in South Africa, had an Austrian father and both South African and Austrian citizenship, and lived in London with his wife and two young sons.
Ditz said his government never received "any hint from the Libyan side that Anton was not alive."
Nkoana-Mashabane and Ditz maintained the diplomatic niceties Friday, expressing only disappointment with Libya and saying they had no choice but to take the assurances at face value. The diplomats 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 candle light vigils and demanded talks with the foreign minister, who met with members of South Africa's National Press Club before Friday's news conference.
Hammerl, 41, was initially reported to have been captured by Gadhafi's militia near the eastern city of Brega, together with Americans Clare Morgana Gillis and James Foley and Spanish photographer Manuel Varela.
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. Thursday, after reaching Tunisia from Libya, they informed Hammerl's family in London that they were with the photographer when they came under attack by Gadhafi's forces. They said Hammerl was shot, and left to die in the desert as Gadhafi's forces took his colleagues away.
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."
Hammerl and his wife, Penny Sukhraj, have two boys, a 14-week old and a 7-year-old.
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.