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Family: Photographer missing in Libya now believed dead

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: South Africa says that it got assurances from "Gadhafi himself" that Hammerl was alive
  • South African government: Libya "gave us the impression he was in custody but alive"
  • Family of Anton Hammerl believes he was killed by Gadhafi's forces
  • Family statement: "It is intolerably cruel that Gaddafi loyalists have known Anton's fate all along"

(CNN) -- The family of South African freelance photojournalist Anton Hammerl, who has been missing in Libya since April, said late Thursday they now believe he was killed by Libyan government forces.

The statement was posted on the "Free photographer Anton Hammerl" Facebook page and follows interviews given in The New York Times, GlobalPost and The Atlantic by two journalists who say they were with him at the time he was shot.

"On 5 April 2011, Anton was shot by 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," the statement says.

Hammerl, 41, was last seen in a remote region of the Libyan desert. He was reportedly captured by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi near al-Brega, a key oil town in eastern Libya that has been the site of intense fighting.

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

The South African government said the American journalists, who were released by Libya this week after reportedly being detained along with Hammerl, recounted what they witnessed to its ambassador to Libya, spokesman Clayson Monyela told CNN Friday.

Monyela said Clare Morgana Gillis and James Foley phoned Hammerl's wife after their release Wednesday to tell her that he had been shot and "wounded badly enough that he could not have survived."

"They gave us the impression he was in custody but alive," Monyela told CNN by telephone. "It's a chaotic situation. One minute you are dealing with a person and then they defect."

South Africa's foreign minister condemned the killing, calling it a "heinous act."

"We got assurances from his advisers, his son's advisers and, yes, Gadhafi himself that all the journalists were still alive," Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the foreign minister, told reporters at news conference announcing Hammerl's death.

"We believe what we are hearing from people who saw the act."

Gillis, a freelancer for the Christian Science Monitor, the Atlantic and USA Today, and Foley of GlobalPost were released this week along with Spanish photographer Manuel Varela, who also goes by the name Manu Brabo, and British journalist Nigel Chandler.

Upon their release, Libyan government spokesman Musa Ibrahim said a judge had ordered each of the four journalists to pay a $164 fine for entering the country illegally. When asked about Hammerl, Ibrahim said the government isn't holding him and hasn't been able to locate him.

"We never had him with us at any stage," Ibrahim said.

However, after their release, Gillis and Foley told GlobalPost in an interview that Hammerl had been shot by Gadhafi forces while the group reported on the outskirts of al-Brega.

They told the news agency that they had heard reports that pro-Gadhafi forces were dug in nearby and that they decided to get out of their car before the rebel soldiers they were traveling alongside pushed ahead.

Within seconds, they told the GlobalPost, the rebels retreated after seeing two armored Libyan military trucks carrying about 10 soldiers, the news agency said.

"It all happened in a split second. We thought we were in the crossfire. But, eventually, we realized they were shooting at us. You could see and hear the bullets hitting the ground near us," Foley told the GlobalPost.

All four journalists immediately dropped to the ground, diving to the side of the road. But the Libyan soldiers, who were coming over the hill, continued to fire, Foley told the news agency

Hammerl, who was closest to the fighting, cried out for help. Foley called out, "Are you OK?," according to the GlobalPost report. "No," was Hammerl's only reply, the news report said.

Foley told the GlobalPost he saw Hammerl's body lying in the sand. He said the photographer was shot in the abdomen and was bleeding severely.

Asked about Hammerl, Libya spokesman Musa Ibrahim said the government was not holding Hammerl and had not been able to locate him.

"We never had him with us at any stage," Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim said there was a mix-up in the names.

The Hammerl family declined a CNN request for comment.

"Things are just too raw. Penny and the family are in pieces," said family friend Bronwyn Friedlander.

Hammerl was a former photographer for the The Saturday Star in Johannesburg. He had gone to cover the fighting in Libya in late March as a freelance photographer, according to the Facebook page.

Since February, the Committee to Protect Journalists has tallied more than 80 attacks on journalists in Libya, including four deaths and 49 detentions.

Among those killed were Oscar nominee Tim Hetherington and acclaimed photojournalist Chris Hondros, who were struck by a rocket-propelled grenade while chronicling the violence in the besieged port city of Misrata.

Human Rights Watch and CPJ have urged the Libyan government to account for missing journalists covering the conflict there.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh, Nkepile Mabuse and Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.