* Former Libyan oil boss could not swim
* Found dead in the Danube
* Had defected from Gaddafi in last phase of uprising
By Michael Shields
VIENNA, May 1 The mysterious drowning of Muammar
Gaddafi's former oil boss in Vienna has shaken friends and
colleagues, who suspect he was murdered by enemies - who knew he
couldn't swim and had reason to want him silenced.
In a case that reeks of international intrigue, the body of
Shokri Ghanem, who served for a time as Gaddafi's prime minister
and ran the Libyan oil industry for years, was found floating in
the Danube River on Sunday morning a few hundred metres from his
home, fully clothed.
According to police, he died by drowning, possibly having
fallen into the river after a heart attack after going for a
walk. Preliminary autopsy reports show no sign of foul play.
Friends say he did not know how to swim, and they had warned
him to be careful of enemies in his Austrian exile.
Ghanem, 69, was one of the most powerful men in Gaddafi's
Libya - effectively controlling the purse strings of the
government and the Gaddafi family - until he defected to the
opposition in May last year as rebels bore down on Tripoli.
His decision to switch sides was a turning point in the
uprising that eventually drove Gaddafi from power. The former
Libyan leader was eventually caught by rebels near his hometown
of Sirte and lynched.
Ghanem moved to a comfortable exile in Vienna, headquarters
of OPEC, where two daughters live with their families. He was
still closely associated with Gaddafi's rule by Libya's new
leaders and had ruled out returning home.
He would have had enemies among Gaddafi's opponents because
of his years at the centre of power, as well as among the late
leader's friends and kin because of his decision to defect. And
he would have had unrivalled knowledge of years of oil deals
worth tens of billions of dollars.
Several friends and associates expressed disbelief at the
official account of the death.
"I thought that was ridiculous. You don't go down to the
Danube, have a heart attack and fall into the river," said a
former oil minister of another OPEC country who had remained a
close friend of Ghanem.
Those who knew Ghanem universally describe him as a cheerful
character, quick with a joke. Friends said that exterior hid a
wary mind, forever worried about threats to his safety but
determined to try to lead a normal life in his Austrian exile.
"Given where he was, yes I think I would be worried. Without
any doubt, I would have been very worried. In fact I think he
said at times he felt he was being followed. But that might have
been his imagination, who knows," said the former OPEC minister,
who asked not to be identified.
"He used to go around Vienna on the streetcar, on the bus.
He wasn't hidden and had a chauffeur day and night, nothing of
the sort. In that sense he tried to maintain a normal
Another former OPEC oil minister, Issam Chalabi, who ran
Iraq's oil industry in the 1980s and set up an oil consultancy
in Vienna with Ghanem, said he was unconvinced by the official
"For him to be found in the River Danube, in the morning,
fully clothed - you know that he doesn't swim, he can't have
fallen just like that. I think we have not heard the end of the
story," Chalabi told Reuters.
"The one who pushed him knows that he cannot swim," he
Friends had advised Ghanem to be cautious, Chalabi said: "We
used to tell him, 'be careful, keep a low profile'."
"The problem is that he angered the previous regime because
he had defected and the new Libyan leadership did not approve of
him because he was involved with opaque contracts."
There were suggestions that Ghanem had health problems.
Nihal Goonewardene, a Wasington-based friend of Ghanem's since
graduate school in Boston, said Ghanem had told a houseguest on
Saturday evening that he was not feeling well and left early on
Sunday for a walk from which he did not return.
A few days before, he had told a friend that he had recently
had a series of medical tests and was concerned about getting
bad results, Goonewardene told Reuters.
For now, the family has said little in public. Ghanem's
nephew, Loayi Ghanem, told Reuters an autopsy would be carried
out on Wednesday and the family hoped to bring the body back to
Libya on Thursday. A man who answered the telephone at Ghanem's
home said the family did not wish to speak about the incident.
Austria's Krone tabloid quoted what it called Ghanem's
26-year-old daughter as saying "for us it is 90 percent
(probable) that the cause was a heart attack".
Ghanem, who was also close to Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam,
was privy to potentially damaging information including on oil
deals with Western governments and oil companies. Such deals are
now under investigation by Libya's new leaders.
As chairman of Libya's National Oil Company (NOC) since
2006, Ghanem helped steer Libya's oil policy and held the
high-profile job of representing Libya at OPEC meetings in
"I think he knows more about what really went on in NOC than
anyone else alive - not alive now, he's dead. Obviously there
are matters there that would not pass muster in a normal
society. Where was all the money going?" said the former OPEC
minister who asked not to be named.
In 2009 he quit briefly, but returned to work for the
Gaddafis until last year.
"As head of NOC, he was seeing all the income Libya had. And
this family of Gadaffis, as time went on they wanted more and
more money. One of them came and asked for a billion dollars,
that's when he resigned," said the former minister.
"I think at that moment he was terribly worried. What I have
never known is why he went back."
(Reporting by Michael Shields in Vienna, Alex Lawler and Samia
Nakhoul in London, Tom Heneghan in Paris and Marie-Louise
Gumuchian and Ali Shuaib in Tripoli; Editing by Peter Graff)