Was UN boss Dag Hammarskjold killed in attack on plane? | News | DW | 25.10.2017
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Was UN boss Dag Hammarskjold killed in attack on plane?

A UN review into the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold more than 56 years ago says it is "plausible" an external attack caused his plane to crash. There have been various theories over the decades.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had tasked Tanzanian chief justice Mohamed Chande Othman to investigate the September 17-18, 1961, overnight crash into a forest on the approach to the Ndola airfield in what was then northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia.

Including new evidence, Othman's 63-page report on the crash of the DC-6 aircraft which killed 16 people, including Swedish diplomat Hammarskjold was presented to the UN on Wednesday.

Hammarskjold was the UN's second Secretary General, appointed in 1953. He was going to negotiate a ceasefire for mining-rich Katanga province in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as flight SE-BDY made its approach to the northern Zambian city of Ndola, near the border with DRC.

Direct attack

Othman's conclusion suggests the plane had been deliberately brought down, either by what he called "direct attack" or a distraction that diverted "the pilots' attention for a matter of seconds at the critical point at which they were on their descent." Witnesses at the time said they had seen a second aircraft in the air.

"Based on the totality of the information we have at hand, it appears plausible that external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash," Othman wrote, adding there was a "significant amount of evidence from eyewitnesses that they observed more than one aircraft in the air, that the other aircraft may have been a jet, that SE-BDY was on fire before it crashed, and/or that SE-BDY was fired upon or otherwise actively engaged by another aircraft."

Dag Hammarskjold was the second UN Secretary General

Dag Hammarskjold was the second UN Secretary General

New evidence on Katangan rebels

Othman had access to a wide range of information for his report. New evidence suggested that Katangan rebels who opposed Congo's independence from Belgium had more air power than previously thought. Instead of a single French Fouga aircraft the rebels may have had three Fouga and other planes, including one from West Germany, available for their use at a number of airfields in the region.

Documents received by Othman from Britain and the US indicated both countries had agents in and around the Congo at the time of the crash.

Theories over the decades have ranged from the crash being caused by an apartheid-era South African paramilitary organization carrying out a bomb plot, referred to as "Operation Celeste" or the plane being shot down by a Belgian pilot. The Othman panel dismissed the theory that a bomb brought down the plane.

Othman said his panel could not conclude if sabotage was a cause of the crash as his team lacked access to original documents from South Africa detailing Operation Celeste.

Ndola airport did not use its equipment to record radio traffic on the night of Hammarskjold's death and a British diplomat, Sir Brian Unwin, who was at the airport at the time, recalled that two US aircraft ran their engines on the airfield throughout the night, fueling suspicion that they were monitoring radio traffic.

French artist Marc Chagall created this glass memorial to Hammarskjold

French artist Marc Chagall created this glass memorial to Hammarskjold

Drawing a conclusion

Othman said there was evidence British colonial authorities had sought to blame pilot error for the crash at the time but he said that conclusion should now be considered "logically unsound."

"Judging from history and the manner in which potential new information has emerged over the years," the report concluded, "it is still likely that additional information will be located, unearthed or made available."

jm/rc (dpa, ARD)

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