Row with a bus driver led to Swiss massacre

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The Independent Online

Metal detectors were installed at legislatures across Switzerland yesterday as the country's much-vaunted "direct democracy" sought to protect itself against madmen. After Thursday's massacre in the cantonal assembly of Zug, flags flew at half mast in memory of the 14 elected members shot in a vendetta stemming from one man's trivial row with a bus driver.

The assailant, 57-year old Friedrich Leibacher, had long been known to the police. He was convicted in 1970 for molesting children and forging documents, and had been sentenced to 18 months.

An unremarkable life followed, with Leibacher working as a salesman. He bought a house in 1987 in the village of Seelisberg, married a woman from the Dominican Republic and raised their daughter. The locals say he was away a lot, and did not get noticed much.

Until 1998. Then one night he had an altercation with a bus driver in Zug, and threatened the man with a gun. That was the encounter Leibacher resolved on Thursday morning, when he walked into the Zug assembly, dressed in blue and black fatigues and combat boots, and heavily armed. He fired several dozen rounds with his semi-automatic, and a few more with his pump-action gun. A pistol and revolver completed his armoury, alongside a canister filled with explosives.

And all because the authorities had refused to take action against the bus driver he had denounced five times. A counter-suit begun by the transport department for defamation was apparently the last straw.

Robert Bisig, the man in charge of the transport department, was the target of Leibacher's rage. "Where is Bisig?" he yelled repeatedly as he emptied one cartridge after another, taking careful aim at the politicians. Mr Bisig was not there, so he survived.

He now speaks with a ghostly voice, and is almost apologetic about his huge luck. "I am struggling to perform my duties, but you can imagine what I feel inside," he told The Independent. "My brother-in-law was seriously injured. That comes on top of everything else." As he tries to avert questions about his escape – "four of us in the canton government survived, I wasn't alone" – drops of sweat gather on his chin, his lips tremble. He forces back tears.

He had not even known Leibacher. "I never had any personal contact with the assailant," he says. But lots of people did, and the Swiss are asking how, in their closely controlled society, such an unstable person was allowed to roam with all his guns.

To the government's great relief, the semi-automatic that claimed most of the 14 innocent lives was not issued by the army. Most Swiss men take home their guns after military service. But Leibacher had not been conscripted and he had paid for the weapons himself. He had three gun licences.

Nobody, though, seems to have thought that a man who could wave a gun at a bus driver might be unfit to carry one. He had further attracted attention recently by penning far-right pamphlets, denouncing an "avalanche of foreigners" in the country, and praising Christoph Blocher, a populist demagogue.

And yet more signs. After his retirement last year on an invalidity pension, Leibacher's marriage broke up, he sold his house and moved into a one-bedroom flat in Zurich. A local jobcentre reported several unpleasant encounters. Staff had received "massive threats" from Leibacher, the police disclosed yesterday. Yet, as far as they knew, the assailant was given no psychiatric help.

Perhaps nothing could be done. "When someone snaps, we're all vulnerable," said Sonia Daume, who runs a boutique opposite the assembly building in Zug. "There is no security against what happened here."

The regional government has declared a week of mourning from Monday, and put all of its business on ice for the rest of October. As Mr Bisig said, four of the seven-member executive survived, but two of those are in hospital. In all, 15 people are injured, one critically. Mr Bisig has been left in charge of the rump assembly.

Another casualty, though, is the Swiss way of bringing democracy to the people. Switzerland, the Zurich newspaper Tages Anzeiger noted, used to be "a country where government ministers travelled on the tram without bodyguards". On Thursday, that country died. The gates that lead to elected representatives are slamming shut.