Savage murder that has forced a nation to confront a brutal reality

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The Independent Online

"If I had been there at the stabbing, I would have ripped his face off,'' said Lanja Rashid as she placed a teddy bear at an impromptu shrine outside Karolinska hospital where Anna Lindh, the Swedish Foreign Minister, died of her stab wounds early yesterday. "We Swedes have to think again. How could he have got away? How could people just stand back and watch?" she added.

Numbed by the brutal murder of Sweden's most popular politician, the country's leaders vowed to press ahead with Sunday's referendum on euro membership.

Goran Persson, the Prime Minister and a long-term ally of Ms Lindh said: "We don't want to end up in a situation where violence puts an end to the democratic process."

Sweden, he said "has lost its face towards the world". Ms Lindh, 46, was the "queen of the 'yes' vote'' in the run-up to Sunday's referendum, he said.

In a country that, out of a sense of being different from the rest of Europe, had looked set to vote against adopting the currency, Ms Lindh's murder has devastated Swedes and reminded them that their country can suffer the same evil as anywhere else.

The last time Sweden felt this level of shared grief was in February 1986 when Ms Lindh's mentor, Prime Minister Olof Palme, was shot dead outside a cinema in Stockholm.

Ms Rashid, 43, an immigrant from Kurdistan who has three children, said yesterday: "Sweden was supposed to be safe. We came here because it was a paradise."

Sweden has not learnt the lessons of Palme's killing. It remains an open society in which ministers go to work on public transport.

Ms Lindh was shopping with a friend, not a bodyguard, on Wednesday afternoon. She was savagely stabbed in the stomach and died from her injuries early yesterday.

What has changed since Palme's still-unsolved murder is that Mrs Rashid is among a growing number of immigrants who consider themselves to have a stake in this country. Within the crowd that gathered and laid flowers in Lutheran solemnity outside the hospital yesterday were large numbers of African and Middle Eastern faces - the one-time refugees of whom Ms Lindh was the greatest champion.

Abderisak Aden, originally from Somalia, said that Ms Lindh had personally intervened for him in Washington after his name appeared on a US list of terrorist suspects.

"She told me that she believed me and she fought my case until my name was removed from that list. After it was all over she came to visit me with presents for my children and she said she had suffered with me over that business. She was not a 'weather politician' - by that I mean she acted with conviction."

Mr Aden, a political sciences student, 34, who is an active member of Ms Lindh's Social Democrat party, added: "She was Palme's heir and it is horrific that she should have died in the same way. People say we should put an end to the open society, guard it like all the others. But I don't believe that.

"We should be proud of our open society. Politicians are those we elect to defend our society so we should protect them like you would protect a treasure." The NK department store where Ms Lindh was fatally wounded remained open yesterday, but it was hardly business as usual.

At the Filippa K counter, where Ms Lindh had fought for her life, designer clothes had made way for an impromptu shrine of flowers and candles.

More harrowing details emerged of the savage attack. According to reports, Ms Lindh was chased up the escalator to the first floor. As she stepped off the escalator, the attacker hit her and she fell towards the Filippa K counter where he stabbed her repeatedly.

Shoppers heard her scream and witnesses said that they saw a man leave the store calmly at first, but then he broke into a run.

According to store management, security guards were on the scene within 30 seconds but by that time the assailant had slipped away, having dropped the murder weapon. Police were alerted at 4.19pm and Ms Lindh was on a stretcher heading for an ambulance 10 minutes after the attack.

At first it was thought that Ms Lindh's injuries, while serious, were not life-threatening. But more than 11 hours of surgery failed to save her life. The attack had caused massive bleeding after piercing the liver and severing several arteries, and she was pronounced dead at 5.29am yesterday.

Police experts are now studying video surveillance, although it is unclear whether cameras in the store captured a clear picture of the attacker. The authorities are looking for a man aged between 30 and 40 of Nordic appearance, around 6ft tall and possibly wearing a camouflage jacket, which may have been discarded soon after the crime.

Inevitably, the attack has focused attention on security issues, especially given the lessons that ought to have been learned from the Palme murder. The head of security police, Kurt Malmström, conceded that the fact that such an attack could take place in broad daylight represented "a failure" for the authorities. But he added that there was not information to suggest that the minister was under threat.

Only the Prime Minister and the three most prominent members of the royal family have 24-hour security, although that is likely now to be extended to government ministers.

Outside the NK store, and at several points throughout Stockholm, Swedes were queuing in their hundreds to sign books of condolence and leave floral tributes.

As they waited patiently for up to an hour, the well-wishers expressed disbelief that, 17 years after the assassination of Palme, the nightmare had returned to Stockholm.

Krister Ekeroth, a student from Stockholm, said: "I really can't understand it. I can't really get it. I have watched the political debate in Sweden and she was the one who had potential for the future. The man who killed her must have been a maniac."

Ms Lindh, who was widely seen as the next Swedish prime minister, was probably the most effective campaigner for the country's membership of the euro. And with the referendum on membership looming, her face still peers out from hundreds of "yes" campaign posters around the city.

But the mourners came yesterday from both sides of the debate because Ms Lindh was a rare phenomenon: an ambitious politician who was both popular and respected.

As Marlin Eckaredt, a secondary school pupil, put it: "She spoke to everyone in the nation, not just to high-class people or working-class people, everyone was touched by her. She was a just a regular person doing a very important job."

Quite how this outpouring of grief will affect Sunday's vote remains to be seen.

The "no" camp had been well ahead in the polls but the "yes" side could now benefit from a considerable sympathy vote, given that Ms Lindh played such a prominent role in their campaign.

Party leaders rejected the idea of postponing the vote, saying it would send the wrong message, and turnout is likely to be high as politicians urge the public to show that a democracy cannot be thrown off course by violence.

That is likely to be good news for the "yes" side, though whether it will be enough to make up the necessary ground remains to be seen.

But the results now seem less important even to the partisan campaigners.

Olle Schmidt, a Swedish Liberal democrat MEP, said: "It is so sad to lose such a brilliant politician. This is really tragic because it has happened here before [with Olof Palme]. We are a small country and perhaps we have been living an illusion."