Croatian victim of IS beheading 'football-mad family man'

Rusmir Smajilhodzic
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An image grab taken from a video made available by Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) group's media outlet Welayat Sayna on August 5, 2015, shows Croatian national Tomislav Salopek kneeling on the sand next to an IS flag

An image grab taken from a video made available by Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) group's media outlet Welayat Sayna on August 5, 2015, shows Croatian national Tomislav Salopek kneeling on the sand next to an IS flag (AFP Photo/)

Vrpolje (Croatia) (AFP) - Tomislav Salopek, whom the Islamic State group claimed Wednesday to have beheaded in Egypt, was among thousands of Croats who left the crisis-hit Balkans state to pursue opportunities abroad.

"He went (to Egypt) exclusively to earn bread for his children, nothing else," his father told AFP on August 6, days before purported pictures of Salopek's body were posted on IS-affiliated Twitter accounts.

Zlatko Salopek said his son's abduction last month about 22 kilometres (14 miles) west of Cairo, where he was working for French geoscience company CGG, came on the eve of his planned return from Egypt.

"Everybody would like to have such a child. My son was always calm, serene, a great worker," he said.

Tomislav's wife Natasa Salopek expressed disbelief at the reports of his death.

"I want to believe and hope that he is still alive. I will hope till the end," she told AFP.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said he was unable to confirm Salopek's death but feared the worst.

"At this moment we cannot confirm with 100-percent certainty that this is true and I don't know if we will be able to confirm that in the coming days, but what we see does not look good, looks horrible," Milanovic told reporters, adding nevertheless that the government would not give up hope.

The 31-year-old engineer and father of two young children -- a seven-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy -- from Vrpolje in eastern Croatia worked on large motorway projects in his homeland before the economy slumped in 2009 and construction projects dried up.

By then he was already in demand among international energy companies. Before joining CGG in early 2015 he had worked "throughout the Arab world" according to his father.


- 'Proud of his country' -


Salopek, who was described by friends as easygoing and sociable, took Croatian football gear with him on these trips, to give as gifts.

"He would take with him jerseys of Dinamo Zagreb football club or the Croatian national team and offer them to his new friends. They would than make a photo. He was so proud of his country," Zlatko Salopek said.

His home visits to Vrpolje, a town of around 3,500 people, was a time to reconnect with family and to indulge his passion for raising chickens and entering poultry competitions.

"When he was in town he would spend every morning here sipping coffee. He would come with his son, who played in the small park (nearby)," said Tihomir, a waiter in a local cafe.

A firefighter friend, Drazen Pavlovic, described the first Croatian to be killed by a jihadist group as an agreeable sort "who never argued with anyone".

"How sad. He went to earn a living, to be able to provide small treats for his kids. And this is how it ends," a neighbour, who did not wish to give his name, said.

Salopek's daughter had been crossing out the days until his return on a calendar, the neighbour said.

"On Friday night she was waiting for her father to return so the family could go to the coast," said Stipe Bjelokapic, a family friend.

News of the purported killing sent shockwaves through the town of Vrpolje.

"I am speechless. What did that man do to deserve this?" asked Danijela, a 40-year-old neighbour. "How do you explain this to his children?"