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Around the World in 86 Days ... on Motorbike With Double-hand Transplant

Thirteen years ago, he lost both hands in a letter bomb explosion. Now the Austrian police officer tours the globe alone on his motorbike, undeterred by a double hand transplant.

His motto, he likes to point out, is: "never give up."

Theo Kelz, a medical wonder with an iron will, was one the victims of mail bomber Franz Fuchs, who terrorised Austria from 1993 until his arrest in 1997 with a wave of xenophobic attacks that killed four people and seriously injured 15.

The 53-year-old bomb disposal expert from Carinthia in southern Austria was attempting to defuse a mail bomb delivered to a school in Klagenfurt on August 24, 1994 when it exploded, ripping off his hands.

"For six years, I had an obsession: to have new hands" instead of prosthetic limbs, he told a press conference to present his latest motorbike tour around the northern hemisphere.

After pleading with almost 50 surgeons in Austria and around the world, Kelz finally got his two hands in March 2000. He was the second person only to receive a double hand transplant, two months after surgeon Jean-Michel Dubernard performed the world's first such operation on a man in France.

The first double hand transplant on a woman took place last November in Spain, when news reports said it was the seventh such operation worldwide.

Kelz' surgery lasted 17 hours and was performed by transplant specialist Raimund Margreiter at Innsbruck University Hospital in western Tyrol.

"I did 5,000 hours of rehabilitation because after six years, the cerebral cortex had forgotten how to use hands," the police officer said.

The bearded Kelz, who looks more like a professor than a bomb expert, talks with his hands and is quite agile, even managing to unbutton his shirt sleeves, albeit with a little difficulty, to show off the scars on his forearms.

"I don't feel any pain at all in my hands," Kelz t old AFP , but his fingers can feel sensation. Seven years after his operation, he still has to swallow immunodepressants every day to prevent his body from rejecting his new hands.

A motorbike enthusiast since he was a teenager and a keen traveler, Kelz did a first 550-kilometre (342-mile) post-operation trip in October 2001 around his native Austria.

In 2003, he rode across South America before going around the world in 86 days through Russia, Japan and Canada in 2006, barely missing the symbolic 80 days from the title of Jules Verne's adventure classic thanks to breakdowns and customs problems, he said with a smile.

He even tackled Siberia, attaching a gigantic 85-liter (22.5-gallon) blue gas tank to his red 1,000cc 1976 BMW motorcycle to give him more freedom and self-reliance on the difficult roads.

Though he spoke no Russian, Kelz has only good memories of the trip, saying: "I have never experienced such hospitality as in Russia."

Today a police officer in Feldkirchen, the father of one -- he has a daughter, Andrea, 31, with wife Roswitha -- has added a few more skills to his repertoire and has a business card as singular as his own life journey: Theo Kelz - biker and 2006 round-the-world traveler - civil servant, mediator and conflict manager.

"Most conflicts result from a lack of information" and can be resolved around a table and with a little time," he said.

In any case, this survivor bares no grudge towards his attacker, who ironically blew off both his own hands in a suicide attempt at the time of his arrest and later took his life while in prison in 2000.

"Of course I forgive him. Otherwise I would be filled with hate and vengeance like Fuchs. I wouldn't be here," he said.

Kelz plans to publish a book on his life and travels in the autumn. A televised movie on Franz Fuchs, featuring interviews with some of his victims, including former Vienna mayor Helmut Zilk who lost an arm due to a letter bomb, is also expected to come out in October, on the 10th anniversary of the bomber's arrest.


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