Giandomenico Picco, Diplomat Who Freed Hostages in Lebanon, Dies at 75

Giandomenico Picco, an Italian diplomat who as a lead negotiator for the United Nations helped resolve conflicts across the globe — most notably spending nearly a year in the early 1990s shuttling around the Middle East to secure the release of 11 hostages held by terrorist groups in Lebanon — died on Sunday in Wilton, Conn., north of Norwalk. He was 75.

His son Giacomo said the cause of his death, at an assisted living home, was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Picco spent 20 years with the U.N., mostly in a series of loosely defined roles that placed him at the center of some of the world’s most dangerous hot spots.

Early in his career he helped manage the conflict between Greece and Turkey over the island of Cyprus; in 1986 he mediated between New Zealand and France after French secret agents sank the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship, in the Auckland harbor; and in 1988 he helped arrange the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Tall, sharply dressed and always discreet, Mr. Picco was something of a mystery within the U.N. bureaucracy. He would disappear without notice from the headquarters in Manhattan, only to surface a few days later in Lebanon, Iran or Afghanistan, often without having passed through border controls along the way.

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, who met Mr. Picco when they both worked in Cyprus and who, after becoming secretary general in 1981, brought him on as his personal assistant, often called Mr. Picco his “chief troubleshooter” and an “unarmed soldier of diplomacy.”

Among the thorniest world crises in the late 1980s was the taking of scores of Western hostages by Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, including more than two dozen Americans, often for years at a time. Mr. Pérez de Cuéllar made it a personal mission to free them, and he sent Mr. Picco to make it happen.

Their leverage was Iran, the sponsor behind groups like Hezbollah, which by 1990 found itself at a crossroads. With the end of the Cold War and the death of the country’s hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the country seemed open to a rapprochement with the West. Freeing the final hostages held in Lebanon seemed a real possibility.

Mr. Picco later joked that during the early 1990s he spent more time in Tehran than in his native Italy. Over nearly a year of negotiations, he would meet first with Iranian officials, then travel to Syria. From there he would be taken in a military car, with curtains across the back seat so no one could see him, over the Lebanese border to meet with hostage takers.

He recalled waiting for them on an empty Beirut street in the middle of the night.

“The car came to a screeching halt, a bag was put over my head, then I was thrown into the boot of the car, something which I don’t recommend to anybody, especially if you are 6-foot-3 like me,” he told the BBC in 2013.

He knew the risks: One of the hostages, an Anglican official named Terry Waite, had been taken captive while on a similar mission in 1987. Nevertheless, he traveled without bodyguards and often went into meetings alone.

He made nine trips to Lebanon to meet with the kidnappers, each time bringing back one or more hostages, including Mr. Waite and Terry Anderson, a reporter for The Associated Press who had been held by Hezbollah since 1985.

On Dec. 12, 1991, eight days after Mr. Anderson’s release, President George H.W. Bush presented Mr. Picco with the Presidential Award for Exceptional Service.

“His skillful diplomacy with Middle Eastern governments and officials and representatives of the hostage holders has resulted in freedom for many individuals held in the region,” the award citation read. “His personal courage in the face of danger and his dedication to the mission represent the best tradition of international civil service.”

Giandomenico Picco was born on Oct. 8, 1948, in Udine, a city in northeastern Italy, not far from the border with what was then Yugoslavia. His father, Giacomo, was a pharmacist, and his mother, Ares, managed the home.

He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Padua, in Italy, in 1971, and a master’s in international relations from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1972.

He married Elena Carretta in 1973. They later divorced. He married Kate Cooney in 2000; they also later divorced. Along with his son Giacomo, he is survived by another son, Liam, and a granddaughter.

Mr. Picco applied to work at the United Nations on a whim and landed a job at the lowest professional pay grade, in the Department of Political and Security Council Affairs. Two years later he joined the Office of Special Political Affairs to focus on conflict resolution, a post that soon had him on the front lines in Cyprus.

By the end of the 1970s he had a reputation as a reliable and reliably low-profile fixer. After Cyprus he worked around the Middle East, including a multiyear engagement trying to end the Iran-Iraq War. It finally came to a close in 1988.

His mentor, Mr. Pérez de Cuéllar, left the secretary general’s office in 1991, and Mr. Picco knew that his time at the United Nations would most likely end as well. Though he admired the new office holder, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, he realized that Mr. Boutros-Ghali had his own priorities, and his own staff.

Mr. Picco had one more mission. There were two remaining hostages, Thomas Kemptner and Heinrich Struebig, both German aid workers.

Mr. Picco recounted his career in a memoir, published in 1999.Credit…Crown

He returned to Lebanon, despite being told by an Iranian official that several of the terrorists wanted him dead, a tense conversation he recounted in his 1999 memoir, “Man Without a Gun: One Diplomat’s Secret Struggle to Free the Hostages, Fight Terrorism, and End a War.” In Beirut, he met with officials from Germany, Lebanon and Syria; after several days of tense negotiations, the two men were released.

During the celebrations that followed, Mr. Picco called his secretary in New York and asked her to deliver a letter he had left on his desk to Mr. Boutros-Ghali’s office. It contained his resignation.

He flew with the Germans to Frankfurt, but he declined an offer to join their news conference on the airport tarmac.

“As the attention shifted to them, I slipped out of the plane unnoticed and walked under the aircraft and across the tarmac to a waiting car,” he wrote in his memoir. “Within seconds I was gone.”

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