World News

Death of a salesman

October 16 1978
World News

Death of a salesman

October 16 1978

Death of a salesman

World News

Werner Lamberz, heir to East German leader Erich Honecker and his country's top trouble-stirrer in Africa, was killed in a helicopter crash in Libya last March. Reports at the time spoke of an accident but, for the first time in this exclusive report from Paris, Maclean’s correspondent Peter Lewis reveals that it is now believed Lamberz was murdered, and names three possible killers:

HA t first the news caused hardly a ZrA ripple. When Werner Lamberz’ helicopter crashed near Tripoli on March 6, the Libyan authorities merely issued a communiqué to say that East Germany’s top envoy in Africa had been killed while paying an official visit to Colonel Moammar Khadafy. The Western press reported the accident briefly, mentioning that the victim had been the right-hand man—and probable successor—of East German Communist party boss Erich Honecker.

But intelligence circles in Bonn, Paris and London were jolted. The 48-yearold Lamberz was known to be the brains behind East Germany’s successful drive for influence in Africa, a charismatic figure who had secured footholds for his “Afrika Korps” of soldiers, economists, technicians and spies in no less than 15 African countries. To French spooks,

quick to salute a fallen adversary, Lamberz had undoubtedly been the best foreign political operator ever to work in Africa—“for any side.” And as details of the Libyan crash trickled in, they became convinced he had been assassinated.

Although the Libyans and East Germans cast an immediate blackout over

the crash, enough facts are now known to piece together the last moments of Lamberz and his three aides. Lamberz had arrived in Tripoli the previous day on the first leg of what was to have been his eighth tour of Africa, and had spent the afternoon in consultation with Libya’s second-in-command, Major Abdul Salam Jalloud. The crash hap-

pened when Lamberz was flying back to his headquarters. There is some suggestion he was to meet that evening with Khadafy and wanted to freshen up first.

The helicopter was a French-built Super Frelon belonging to the Libyan air force. With Lamberz were East Germany’s de facto foreign minister, Paul Markowski, two minor German officials who doubled as bodyguards, three medium-ranking Libyan functionaries and the crew of four. The craft, piloted by Captain Said Helmi, took off in the gathering dusk only to plunge almost immediately into a field on the outskirts of Tripoli. All were killed, it is now believed, by a bomb placed aboard.

It is the fact that there were no survivors that has convinced experts that nothing short of an explosion could have caused so total a disaster. The Super Frelon has three engines and can carry 35 persons. It can fly fully loaded on two engines and lightly loaded on one (in this case there were only 11 people on board). Out of 98 Super Frelons sold overseas since it was introduced in the late 1960s only one, the Libyan aircraft, is believed to have crashed; and there has been only one crash in France, which had nothing to do with aircraft failure. Pilot error cannot be altogether ruled out, but VIP pilots are not chosen for their lack of skill, or nerve.

There was no official inquiry into the circumstances of the crash and no official explanation for it, beyond brief TV and radio references to an accident, which were later repeated to Western diplomats and the few journalists on post in Tripoli. The bodies of the German victims were shipped back immediately to East Berlin where a day of national mourning was decreed.

But within hours of the crash, the story was circulating in Tripoli that the

East German envoy’s helicopter had been blown to bits by a bomb that had been meant for Khadafy. The Libyan leader, the story goes, had intended to join Lamberz but had been tipped off about the plot and had not had time to warn his guest. (This lurid account was picked up by the West German sensation-sheet Bild Zeitung and published toward the end of March.)

While rumor named Khadafy as the potential victim, however, some facts about Lamberz make him the likely subject for assassination. Lamberz combined the skill of a back-room operator with the up-front charm of a salesman. If his official post was modest—

chief of the Politburo’s propaganda section—from 1975 onward his real power and importance in East Germany were probably second only to Honecker’s. But for all his cleverness, Lamberz had stepped on toes during his meteoric rise. One pair reportedly belonged to Premier Willi Stoph, who is said to have fallen from grace after a brush with him.

Lamberz’s success abroad was due entirely to his personality and keen grasp of Third World needs. Elegantly dressed, fluent in English and French, and naturally curious (he was the first East German chief to have an audience with the Pope), Lamberz moved tirelessly from one end of Africa to another for six years, mixing with leaders, buttering up ministers and, incidentally, placing his own men in positions of power. At the time of his death, he had

managed to deploy about 5,000 East Germans in Africa, approaching the Russian presence.

In addition his men swarmed over the Middle East, to train and bankroll Palestinians and generally encourage the “Rejection Front.”

People who knew Lamberz well, however, claim he had two major flaws: he was a born intriguer and carried the German passion for organization to an extreme; and it is these shortcomings which may have led to his death.

Three among the theories advanced to explain his murder qualify as plausible. The first is that Lamberz may have been killed by the East Germans themselves, falling victim to a rival faction. It seems odd, however, that the East Germans would go to the trouble of sabotaging his plane in faraway Libya when a mishap at home would have been easier to fix.

A second theory is that he was killed by a Western intelligence unit because of the monumental nuisance he was making of himself. But the same objection applies. Why pick Libya—unless, of course, the killers wanted to lay the corpse on Khadafy’s doorstep?

This leads to the third possibility, which French and North African sources are convinced is correct: Khadafy himself. He is certainly the prime suspect because of his temperament, access to the victim, and the ease with which he could conceal the crime. But what about a motive? Lamberz is said to

have thought the maverick Libyan leader to be the least efficient and dependable of his African allies. In fact, it is believed that Lamberz went to Tripoli in March to preach restraint to the Libyans in their backing of a rebellion that was raging at the time in neighboring Chad. Lamberz felt Khadafy was unnecessarily provoking the French, who were acting as Chad’s protectors.

It would not be stretching the imagination to assume that Lamberz would have liked to see Khadafy replaced by a more reliable man, and he may even have started to foment a plot against him among the Libyan officers who regularly visit East Germany for training, Had the choleric and insecure Khadafy got wind of such an intrigue, would he have hesitated to order Lamberz’s. death?

It will probably never be proved if this theory is true. But two things are certain: the man who was arguably the best Communist agent operating anywhere in the Third World was eliminated. He did not die accidentally. And his murder cannot fail to shape events in his native East Germany and in the East-West race for Africa.