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Germany

German Politician and Mideast Expert Dies

Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, a former West German leader of Germany's ruling Social Democrats and a formidable troubleshooter in hostage crises, died Thursday aged 82.

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Ben Wisch was best known for his negotiating skills during crisis

A key figure within the Social Democrats (SPD) from the early 1960s to the 1990s, Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, also known affectionately as "Ben Wisch" in Germany due to his contacts in the Arab world and affinity to the region, died Thursday afternoon in a Cologne clinic just days after waking from a coma.

He will be most remembered for his troubleshooting skills in crisis situations, in which he successfully negotiated an end to several hostage takings.

Most memorably, he played a key role in ending a 1977 hijacking, in which 86 German passengers were held captive by Palestinian gunmen who diverted their Lufthansa flight to the Somali capital Mogadishu. Wischnewski won the agreement of the Somali government for an elite German commando to intervene, spelling an end to the siege.

Troubleshooter in demand

He also helped facilitate the first secret contacts between Israeli and Palestinian officials, which were eventually to lead to the 1993 Oslo accords. He became a personal friend of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose funeral he attended late last year.

In 1986, he helped secure the release of eight kidnapped Germans in Nicaragua and in 1987, the release of two German businessman.

RAF-Anschlag auf Gefängnis

RAF bombing in Darmstadt in 1993

Wischnewski's formidable troubleshooting skills were also put to the test at home when in October 1977, guerillas hijacked a German plane and took 90 hostages in an attempt to force West Germany to release imprisoned members of the far-left Red Army Faction (RAF).

Wischewski stepped in as crisis manager and the hostages were eventually freed by Germany's elite GSG-9 forces.

"The state must never give in to terrorism," Wischnewski wrote after Mogadishu. "Unfortunately we let this happen before 1977 and learned our lesson."

Loyal Social Democrat

Born on July 24, 1922 in the town of Allenstein or Olsztyn, in what is now Polish territory, Wischnewski joined the SPD in 1946 at 24 after fighting in Hitler's army for five years, rising to lieutenant in the infantry before spending a short time in a US prisoner-of-war camp.

He entered the West German parliament in 1957, where he remained active until retiring in 1990. He was SPD campaign manager in the 1969 election, when the party took over control of the government for the first time since the war. He was later used repeatedly by the government as a special envoy to communist East Germany.

His last official mission for the German government took him to Libya, in April last year, where he negotiated the resumption of economic ties between the two countries.

"Extraordinary representative of Germany"

On Thursday, SPD head Franz Müentefering paid tribute to a man who, he said, "had worked since his youth for Social Democratic ideas, in his town, his country and the world."

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said, "Germany loses a politician of reputation and stature." Fischer also praised Wischnewski's mediatory skills, saying he was "an excellent expert on the Near and Middle East, who did much to improve our relations with the Arab world."

Fischer added in a statement, "We will mourn the loss of an extraordinary representative of Germany throughout the world."

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