A leading French journalist may have been murdered to prevent him revealing an illicit trade in human organs between Bosnia and Italy.

Xavier Gautier, a specialist on the Balkans for the French newspaper Le Figaro, was found hanging in his holiday home in Menorca, Spain, on May 19.Spanish police said the initial autopsy indicated suicide, but they were carrying out more tests at the request of French authorities and his family.

Colleagues said Gautier, 35, was believed to have information about a trade in which Croatian guerrillas clubbed Bosnians to death in order to sell their bodies to a clinic in Trieste, Italy.

Gautier is believed to have obtained the information from a man in the Italian underworld known only as "Diavolo Rosso" ("Red Devil").

The wall facing Gautier's body in his house in Ciudadela, Menorca, had been painted with the words "traditore" (Italian for "traitor") and "Diavolo Rosso."

But colleagues said Gautier, who had begun a year's sabbatical in March, had personal problems linked to the recent death of his younger brother. They said that after years of working as a war correspondent, Gautier, who was divorced, had become too close to his subject and might have wished to dramatize his own death.

Spanish police said a friend had found Gautier hanging in his unlocked vacation home, his feet barely off the floor. His hands were tied in front, and he was believed to have been dead for up to 24 hours when he was found.

There were no signs of a struggle in the two-story Ciudadela house. Nor did it appear that anything had been stolen.

The same blue paint daubed on the wall in Gautier's house had been used to paint a cross on his white shirt. It was not clear what it symbolized.

Charles Lambroschini, foreign editor of Le Figaro, said: "The family is convinced it is murder, and many of his colleagues are suspicious."

Lambroschini was aware of Gautier's interview with the Diavolo Rosso. "He wrote the article, but we did not publish it because elements were missing."

However, Gautier had spoken widely to colleagues about his investigations into arms dealing through Austria and alleged organ trafficking to Italy.

One senior French journalist, who would not be named, said: "The stuff he had on the organs was good enough to endanger his life. It didn't just implicate faceless war criminals in former Yugoslavia, but eminent Italians."

In an interview with a Menorcan newspaper, Gautier gave details of his investigation into the organ trade. "I know the name of the clinic (in Trieste) and of the people who have taken part in this trade," he said. "I have an interview with a `supergrass' (informer) who acted as security chief on the convoys that go from Rijeka to Sarajevo.

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"I asked him if they killed the people from whom they extracted the organs like pigs. With total disdain and cynicism, he replied that they clubbed them to death - men, women and children - so as not to lose a single drop of blood. I also have the names of five of the victims."

On his way to Menorca, Gautier's portable computer was stolen. Spanish sources said it contained information on his investigations.

Gautier's deep involvement with the Balkans, where he worked intermittently for four years, was seen as "unhealthy" by some colleagues. One said: "He cannot have escaped every war correspondent's deep frustration at the indifference of the outside world."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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