“External attack” may have caused crash that killed UN secretary general in 1961

Dag HammarskjöldA deliberate attack by another aircraft may have caused the plane crash that killed the United Nations Secretary General in 1961, according to a report commissioned by the intergovernmental organization. On September 17, 1961, a Douglas DC-6 transport aircraft carrying United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld crashed in the British-administered territory of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The crash killed everyone onboard. At the time of his death, Hammarskjöld was flying to the Congo’s mineral-rich Katanga region to meet European-supported chieftains who in 1960 had seceded from the nationalist government of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Ironically, Lumumba had been assassinated in a Western-backed coup exactly eight months before Hammarskjöld’s death.

Three successive investigations into the crash, conducted by the Rhodesian Board of Investigation, the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry, and the United Nations Commission of Investigation, pointed to “pilot error” as the most likely cause of the tragedy. However, research carried out in recent years, including by the Hammarskjöld Commission, which was composed of a diplomat and three judges from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Sweden, has shown that the crash could have been the result of deliberate actions. In February of this year, following a recommendation by a UN-appointed three-member expert panel, the organization tasked Mohamed Chande Othman, a former Tanzanian chief justice, to research the topic in depth. Othman reportedly delivered his final report to the UN Secretary General António Guterres in August. However, it has not yet been made public.

On Tuesday, however, British newspaper The Guardian said it had seen an executive summary of Othman’s report. According to the paper, the report gives credence to the testimony of several local witnesses, who claimed that they saw another aircraft flying near the plane that was carrying Hammarskjöld, and that there were “flashes in the [night] sky” shortly before one of the planes crashed. The report also revives a controversial account given by a French diplomat at the time, Claude de Kemoularia. Kemoularia, who served as Hammarskjöld’s personal assistant from 1957 until his death, claimed that the UN secretary general’s plane was shot down. The diplomat said that a Belgian pilot, identified only as Beukels, who was working as a contractor for Congo’s Katanga rebels, told him that he tried to fire shots as a warning at the UN plane, but accidentally clipped one of its wings, causing it to crash. According to The Guardian, Othman’s report concludes that “it appears possible that an external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash, whether by way of direct attack or by causing a momentary distraction of the pilots”.

The paper also says that the Othman report calls for the declassification of documents on the 1961 crash, which are stored in Belgian, British, Canadian and German government archives. Othman claims that he has confirmed the existence of radio traffic transcripts that were intercepted on the night of the crash by British, Rhodesian and American military and intelligence agencies. Additionally, both Britain and the United States had intelligence officers and agents on the ground in the area during the time of the crash. The report argues that these operatives may have filed crucial reports from Northern Rhodesia following the crash, according to The Guardian.

Editor’s note: We are grateful to African politics and DR Congo expert Professor Herbert F. Weiss, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at City University of New York and Senior Fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, for helping to ensure the factual accuracy of this report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 September 2017 | Permalink

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