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South African photographer killed in Libya

Anton Hammerl, an Austrian-South African photographer who had been missing in Libya, was shot dead six weeks ago by leader Moamer Kadhafi’s forces, his family said Friday in a statement.

The Libyan government, which for weeks told Hammerl’s family he was alive, had initially said he would be released as part of a group of four detained foreign journalists freed Wednesday in Tripoli.

His family on Friday condemned the misinformation as "intolerably cruel".

"From the moment Anton disappeared in Libya we have lived in hope as the Libyan officials assured us that they had Anton," the family said in a statement posted on Facebook.

"It is intolerably cruel that Kadhafi loyalists have known Anton’s fate all along and chose to cover it up."

The statement said Hammerl, 41, had been shot by Kadhafi’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," it said.

"Words are simply not enough to describe the unbelievable trauma the Hammerl family is going through."

Hammerl, who had dual South African and Austrian nationality, had been at the centre of a weeks-long campaign by diplomats, family, friends and colleagues pushing for his release after Libyan officials said he was still alive.

"We were assured by Kadhafi himself, by his sons, and by advisers that Anton Hammerl was alive and well," foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters Friday.

South African authorities only learned of Hammerl’s death after the release of the four other journalists, she said.

"The journalists knew that he had been killed but decided for their own survival not to say anything in consular contacts and telephone conversations with their families," the minister said.

"We will maintain contact with the Libyan authorities to find Anton’s body and bring him back for a decent burial."

As recently as Tuesday, the Kadhafi government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said Hammerl would be among the journalists freed the following day.

But on Wednesday Ibrahim said there had been "confusion" about the journalists and that Hammerl’s whereabouts were unknown.

Upon their release, two of the freed journalists said Hammerl had been killed when their group came under attack by Kadhafi forces and were captured on April 5.

American James Foley, a reporter for GlobalPost who was one of those freed, told the online news agency that Hammerl had been shot by Kadhafi forces while the group reported from the rebel-held front lines on the outskirts of the strategic oil town of Brega.

Foley said he, Hammerl, American freelance writer Clare Morgana Gillis and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo had been travelling alongside a group of rebel soldiers when they ran into two armored Libyan military trucks carrying pro-Kadhafi troops.

"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 said.

Hammerl, who was closest to the fighting, cried out for help, then eventually grew silent, he said.

The three other journalists surrendered and were held in a series of detention centres in Tripoli.

Foley said they feared they would put themselves in danger if they tried to communicate the news of Hammerl’s death from captivity. But they contacted Hammerl’s wife, Penny Sukhraj, immediately after crossing the border into Tunisia following their release.