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The Secret Battle of Lazzarotto: An Insider's Look at the Libyan-Swiss Hostage Crisis


It was one of the strangest diplomatic stand-offs in recent memory: After Swiss police arrested the son of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya abducted two Swiss businessmen. According to US diplomatic cables, the challenge proved almost too great for Switzerland.

Photo Gallery: The Odd Conflict between Switzerland and Libya Photos

The last official representative of Switzerland in Libya seems so pitiable as he unburdens himself to his American counterparts on Sept. 3, 2009.

Stefano Lazzarotto, chargé d'affaires of the Swiss Embassy, gave off the outward appearance of being happy "but his physical appearance -- gaunt and fatigued -- betrayed the internal stress that the Swiss-Libyan conflict has forced on him," according to a report sent to Washington from the US Embassy in Tripoli.

The report goes on to quote Lazzarotto as saying: "I even receive calls in the middle of the night from Bern. They do not understand the kind of pressure I am under. I have lost seven kilos in the past 10 days."

By that time, the crisis that Lazzarotto had been sent to Libya to solve had already been going on for 14 months. It was one of the most complicated challenges Swiss diplomats have ever faced. As US diplomatic reports now show, it proved to be too much.

The drama began on July 15, 2008. On that day, police in Geneva arrested Hannibal al-Gadhafi, son of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, in his suite at the Hotel President Wilson after two servants complained of being physically mistreated, an accusation which Gadhafi Jr. denied. The police detained Hannibal for two days before releasing him on bail of 500,000 Swiss francs (€372,000, $505,000) and allowing him and his wife to leave the country.

Looking for Revenge

Libya's ruling family wanted revenge. It immediately severed all trade relations with Switzerland, and it shut down the offices of Swiss companies in Libya. But, in the end, the real crisis revolved around the fate of two Swiss businessmen who had been working in Libya, Max Göldi and Rachid Hamdani. On July 19, 2008, the Libyans temporarily detained them and forbade them from leaving the country. For the next two years, the two would remain Gadhafi's hostages.

Dispatches from the US Embassy in Tripoli provide an inside look into the affair. They show just how helpless Swiss diplomats acted and just how isolated they were from European Union diplomats. They also reveal for the first time how the US secretly supported the Swiss. The US Embassy in Tripoli was proved a place where Swiss diplomats could go to voice their concerns. The Americans lent them a sympathetic ear -- and then cabled everything they heard back to Washington.

The conversation that the exhausted Lazzarotto had with his American counterparts on that September day came almost two weeks after a memorable event in the spat between Switzerland and Libya. Hans-Rudolf Merz, Switzerland's president at the time, had traveled to Libya and apologized on his people's behalf. But the visit would ultimately prove a humiliation for Switzerland -- because, even after the apology, the hostages were not freed.

At the time of the conversation, Lazzarotto wasn't yet sure of the outcome of Merz's visit. He had only just assumed his post in July and had started a three-week vacation in August. But his holiday ended after three days when he got a call saying that he had to come back and help Switzerland's president negotiate an agreement in Libya.

'A Stressful Week'

Lazzarotto told US diplomats of "a stressful week of middle-of-the-night negotiations at the Corinthia Hotel" and about how he and one of his co-workers from Bern had slept in a car outside the hotel for two nights. He noted that the Swiss had agreed to almost all of the Libyans' demands.

Merz and Libyan Prime Minister Bagdadi Mahmudi had discussed the fate of the two Swiss businessmen, Lazzarotto reported. Libya had pledged to allow the two to leave the country before September 1, the ambassador said. It was seen as a major victory -- but by the time of the Sept. 3 conversation with the US, they were still being held.

Lazzarotto was anxious. He said he was "constantly" telephoning his Libyan contacts, but he also seemed to be somewhat sympathetic to the Libyan position. "I am half Italian," Lazzarotto noted, according to the US dispatch,"and I understand time differently than my Swiss-German colleagues in Bern."

Lazzarotto spoke of the tense atmosphere within the Swiss Embassy. The two hostages were initially elated that they might soon be heading home, but were now becoming increasingly depressed. The two were living in apartments above the embassy -- Lazzarotto said that he and a colleague had moved in as well to help boost their morale. Since none of them could sleep at night, they played ping pong to kill time. Afraid that he might miss a crucial phone call, Lazzarotto reported that he hadn't left the embassy since August 31.

'Typically Swiss Thinking'

American diplomats posted in Tripoli had been closely monitoring the whole ordeal since it began in July 2008 with Hannibal's arrest. But they didn't get involved themselves until the fall of 2009. Primarily, they observed that Libya was allowing their rage to interfere with their economic interests. They were kept up to date on the affair by Daniel von Muralt, Switzerland's ambassador to Libya at the time.

As the situation progressed, Muralt became increasingly critical of Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey. On Jan. 27, 2009, Muralt told US Ambassador Gene Cretz that Bern didn't understand the cultural influences behind the Libyan point of view. "We started off much too soft and are probably too soft now," he said, adding that Switzerland had practically no leverage and that his boss, Calmy-Rey, displays "typically Swiss thinking." A few weeks later, Muralt went into early retirement and Lazzarotto took over in July 2009.

It was then, however, after the fruitless trip by President Merz, that the darkest chapter of the affair began. The Libyans continued to refuse to grant the two Swiss captives permission to leave the country. Instead, on Sept. 18, 2009, they lured them into a trap and abducted them in broad daylight.

That was when the US Embassy became significantly more involved in the ordeal. On Sept. 22, Lazzarotto once again met with an American diplomat, and was amazed that his US counterpart already knew about the abduction. Bern had instructed him to keep the matter secret.

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