Silves engineer brutally murdered in Luanda

A community is in shock this week after the news that pretty 36-year-old engineer Rita Cristina Fernandes, who started her career working for Águas de Monchique, was brutally murdered in Luanda over the weekend.

The divorcee’s killing has put the dangers facing Portuguese working in Angola into sharp focus. Over the last four years, at least six other professionals have lost their lives in violent circumstances that they appear to have done nothing to prompt.

The modus operandi of this latest killing is reported to be one “widely used by organised groups in Africa”, wrote Sábado yesterday (January 21) – though there is still confusion as to whether the murder was designed to extort ransom money from Ms Fernandes’ employers, Subsea7 – one of the world’s leading global contractors in seabed-to-surface engineering for the offshore oil industry.

Meantime, Portuguese media is reporting that counterparts in Angola have been accused of barely mentioning the murder, presumably on the basis that it is not good for business-image.

Thus Portuguese friends of the murdered woman have mounted an appeal for publicity.

So far all that is known is that the financial director of Subsea7 was last seen by friends a week ago during a dinner out in the city.

“Afterwards, she returned to her office to collect her car and was never seen again,” Aristófanes dos Santos of the Angolan police force told reporters.

“We still don’t have the results of the autopsy but the victim was beaten and died by asphyxia.”

Ms Fernandes’ body was finally recovered on Monday in the boot of her own car, 30kms from the location from which she was reported missing.

According to Angolan police, two men have already been detained and two others are still on the run.

“The motive of the crime was an attempt to extort money from the firm by bank transfer,” dos Santos told reporters.

Ms Fernandes was murdered “when her kidnappers realised they were not going to get the money”, he revealed – without providing further details of the actual time-scale involved.

Sábado adds that the kidnappers “tried in vain to access the firm’s bank accounts, using the woman’s identity”.

Papers have further alluded to the fact that Ms Fernandes “resisted” her attackers.

Still, today (Thursday) there remains a lot of confusion.

According to the Angolan authorities, at least one of the men in detention is a fellow employee at Subsea7 – but this has been denied by the company in an official statement given yesterday.

A source from the multinational is reported as having told Portuguese journalists that “no Subsea7 employee has been detained or is under investigation”.

Furthermore, the source said no ransom demand had ever been received. “At the moment, we do not have any indication from the authorities in this regard, neither were we contacted at any point during the week in which Rita disappeared by anyone demanding a ransom.”

As the mystery appears to remain far from solved, the young woman’s family in Silves are reported to be in a state of shock and unable to make any kind of statement.

“There are no words for what happened,” a friend told reporters. “She was a lovely girl. A real fighter for life.”

Ms Fernandes left her home in Silves in 2009 to work in Angola – first for logistics company SDV, and later to be recruited by Subsea7, say newspapers.

Like many Portuguese on relatively low salaries in their own country, the prospects in Angola served as a magnet. Already 200,000 professionals have moved to Angola but it is well-known that life there carries its risks.

In the last four years, six other Portuguese professionals have been murdered – though it does not appear that any were in ransom-demand situations. The only common link is that they all worked for large companies.

Nonetheless, national media has focused on the foiled-kidnap scenario as being one widely used – with foreigners working in Africa the principle targets.

For now, the body of Ms Fernandes – a former student at the University of the Algarve – is due to be flown home for burial, though a date for the funeral has not yet been set.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]