The celebrated commander whose bravery knew no bounds

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The Independent Online
ALOIS ESTERMANN led the Swiss Guard for six months before being formally appointed as its captain commander on Monday morning, writes Anne Hanley. Seven hours later he was dead, gunned down along with his wife in their apartment inside the Vatican.

Estermann was a man seemingly without enemies, and his violent death stunned his men. "Anyone present last night as the news broke will have seen the reaction," said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls yesterday. "Tears flowed, and it was understandable. He was very popular."

Born 44 years ago in Gunawill, Estermann was an official in the Swiss army before applying for a transfer to the Vatican. He entered the Holy See's only military force in 1980 as captain, was promoted to major in 1983, lieutenant colonel in 1989, and quartermaster in 1989. In the same year he was made second-in-command of the 100-strong force.

An able linguist, and a student of theology, Estermann married Venezuelan lawyer Gladys Meza Romero in 1983. She died with him on Monday. The couple had no children. "We know that if the Lord wills it, children will come along," he told the La Repubblica daily hours before his death.

Famous as the man who threw himself in front of the wounded Pope on 13 May, 1981 to protect him from further injury as a Turkish terrorist shot at him in Saint Peter's square, He subsequently led the papal bodyguard on over 30 pastoral trips abroad. His dedication to the Pontiff and the Guard also endeared him to the soldiers which make up the Pope's body guard. Ursula Bensiger, a friend of 15 years' standing, said: "Over the last six months, before his appointment on Monday, all the guards I know said the same thing. `We're so well off with Estermann in charge.' They all, to a man, wanted Estermann to stay."

Yet in the Vatican, or back home in Switzerland, there were those who were not wholly convinced by Estermann's qualities, as the delay in his appointment as commander of a force which he had been running since his predecessor retired in November last year showed.

"The selection process is a long and complicated one, hampered by historical factors," said Navarro Valls in an effort to explain away the hold-up. "And sometimes when you're looking for the right person, you don't even notice that the perfect candidate is right under your nose."

Navarro Valls neglected to explain why Estermann's nomination took so much longer than that of his predecessors. Nor would he comment on the killed officer's plan to overhaul the Guard. And as for suggestions that Estermann's biggest drawback was his lack of blue blood, that topic was brushed aside in yesterday's press conference.

"This was a favourite topic for speculation amongst the Swiss community in Rome," said Bensiger. "Estermann's predecessor Roland Buchs was not noble either. Two commoners in succession was pushing it for the Guard."