From Belgian mercenaries to a dubious South African research organization, the aftermath of the death of United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjold has been a series of riveting claims and assertions.
Separating fact from fiction, evidence from hearsay, science from speculation has been an enduring mission of the UN. The “eminent person’s” report by the former chief justice of Tanzania, Mohamed Chande Othman, released on October 25 by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is the latest endeavor in this direction.
On September 18, 1961, a few minutes after midnight, a chartered DC-6 Transair flight registered as SE-BDY carrying the secretary general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, crashed in Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (modern-day Zambia). Hammarskjold, along with 14 of 15 of his staff working on the Congo mission, were killed instantly or shortly thereafter. Sergeant Harold Julien, the lone surviving member of Hammarskjold’s party, died five days later of renal failure attributable to the crash.
Hammarskjold had been on his way to negotiate a ceasefire with Moise Tshombe, the self-styled president of Congo’s breakaway Katanga Region. Tshombe’s movement was backed by Belgium and its mercenaries who wanted the resource-rich Katanga region in the southern part of the country to secede from newly independent Congo.
Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first prime minister, whose strong objection to Katanga secessionism compelled the arrival of UN peacekeepers, gave a global dimension to the Congo crisis. The failure of the UN to tackle the secessionist forces effectively saw Lumumba appealing to the Soviet Union for help. This move swiftly led to Lumumba’s removal from office and his ultimate execution within a span of a few months, widely believed to have been at the behest of Western forces.
Rajeshwar Dayal, Hammarskjold’s Special Representative in the Congo, played a key role in handling the crisis, which saw India significantly contribute to the UN peacekeeping forces. However, India’s pro-Lumumba stance, a shining hallmark of Nehruvian diplomacy, was not taken kindly either by pro-secessionist forces in Congo or their international backers. Dayal was removed from his position, though Indian forces continued to play a key role in maintaining the territorial integrity of the country.
It was in this backdrop that Hammarskjold traveled to Ndola to negotiate a ceasefire with Tshombe that would never happen.
The Rhodesian Board of Investigation, the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry, the UN Commission of Investigation, the Hammarskjold Commission and an independent panel investigated various dimension of the Ndola crash, only to leave doubts, possibilities, and rumors on the subject open.
On December 23, 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 71/260 requesting that the secretary general appoint an eminent person to review potential new information, examine the probative value of existing information, and determine the scope of any further inquiry if necessary. Othman was selected for this endeavor.
The highlight of the 63-page report is the finding that an external aerial attack on Hammarskjold’s plane is a likely possibility, contrary to early investigative suggestions attributing the crash to pilot or human error. The new findings bolster the conspiracy angle in the crash.
Disclosures by two American military officers, Paul Abrams and Charles Southall, who independently claimed to have read or heard a radio transmission on the night of September 17-18, 1961, that Flight SD-BDY was the target of an aerial attack continues to be credible.
Southall, a processing and reporting officer posted near Nicosia, was also informed by a fellow officer that a Belgian pilot known as the “Lone Ranger” flying a Fouga Magister aircraft used by Katangan forces was probably waiting for Hammarskjold’s plane. References to the “Lone Ranger” and the Fouga Magister, strangely enough, were also made by Edmund Gullion, US ambassador in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), somehow indicating that US security and diplomatic circles interested in Congo were aware of a common design.
Abrams, a US Air Force security services officer, claimed to have heard a radio communication stating, “The Americans just shot down a UN plane.” Stationed in Irakleio, Greece, Abrams was provided with the expected flight plan of SE-BDY along with other relevant information such as the aircraft type, number and its destination as Ndola a few days prior to the crash.
The United States confirmed the bona fides of Southall as a naval officer, but refused to disclose any further information on the matter. In Abrams’ case, the US, which initially disputed the existence of the serviceman, accepted his existence while denying that he served in Irakleio at the relevant time. Abrams disputes this finding as a misrepresentation on the part of the US government. Othman believes that the burden has now shifted to the United States to disprove these allegations.
The supply of three Fouga Magister jets to Katangan forces prior to the crash has bolstered theories of an aerial attack against Hammarskjold’s plane. The jets, delivered from France to Katanga on February 16, 1961, by a US civil aircraft crewed by American citizens as part of an order placed by Belgium, could possibly have been employed by Katangan forces to target Flight SE-BDY.
In addition, the availability of numerous airfields in and around Ndola to facilitate such an exercise adds credence to this hypothesis. However, the theory that Ethiopian jets that arrived in Congo in 1961 in support of the United Nations Mission in Congo (ONUC) were used in an attack was discarded as weak and lacking credibility.
The independent role of two Belgian mercenaries, Jan Van Risseghem and one “Beukels” in carrying out aerial attacks targeting Flight SE-BDY, has been the subject of intense speculation. Belgium has disputed allegations that Van Risseghem, a mercenary with a history of disrupting UN operations in Congo including attacks on civilians, was present in Katanga/Ndola or its surrounding areas on the fateful night, thereby ruling out his involvement.
Despite the US and the UN disputing Belgium’s claim regarding Risseghem, Othman concludes that the imprecise and imperfect nature of intelligence inputs pertaining to Risseghem renders this evidence weak.
“Beukels” claimed to have informed Claude de Kemoularia, Hammarskjold’s former personal assistant, in 1967 that he inadvertently shot down Flight SE-BDY from his Fouga Magister jet when he was under instructions from a “Mr X” to intercept the plane and divert it to Kamina airfield in order to have Hammarskjold meet an influential European company executive. When the radio communication to Hammarskjold’s plane was not complied with, Beukels apparently fired from the plane’s machine-guns from behind Flight SE-BDY, inadvertently hitting the plane and leading to its crash and destruction.
While the independent panel doubted Kemoularia’s claim on the ground that he waited until 1993 to disclose this highly sensitive piece of evidence, Othman concluded that Kemoularia notified the information to the authorities as early as July 1969. Since the original notes and transcripts of Kemoularia’s communication with Beukels were not traceable, the mysterious identity of Beukels being unknown, Othman refuses to accept the probative value of this information as anything more than “weak”.
An alleged “Operation Celeste” that involved the planting of a bomb by a shadowy organization called the “South African Institute for Maritime Research” in Hammarskjold’s plane has evoked interest in conspiracy-theory circles. Othman concluded that South Africa’s refusal/unwillingness to disclose details in this regard rendered a conclusive determination impossible at this stage, adding to the mystery behind this claim. Chances of sabotage at Leopoldville prior to the plane taking off was ruled out given the fact that it was left unguarded only for a brief period.
The role of human error attributable to alcohol or drug consumption by the crew was discarded as having no basis. While fatigue could have played a part, there was no evidence that the pilot was short of rest, though the same could not be said about the co-pilot and the flight attendant.
Theories advocating a mechanical failure including wrong altimeter settings or the use of wrong landing charts have been dismissed. However, Othman noted that subject to a broader review of evidence it is not impossible to rule out pilot error despite the favorable landing conditions and fair degree of expertise of the crew.
Outlandish assertions that Hammarskjold was assassinated either before or after the flight were dismissed as baseless. While the rescue operations were sloppy and lacked professionalism taking up to 16 hours to locate the crash site, there was no evidence of collusion or a cover-up.
According to Othman, credible information pertaining to the crash continues to be with UN member states in their intelligence, defense and security archives. In the absence of this information, it is impossible fully understand the cause of the crash and other relevant issues. Thus the onus of disproving the existence of credible information lies with respective member nations. In addition, the United Nations has a responsibility to declassify its own records and archives.
The Othman report is an answer to an issue that has plagued the moral conscience of the United Nations for decades. By clarifying the nature of evidence existing and laying down the path forward, it recommends that the secretary general follow up on the unfulfilled aspects of the work. The ball is now in the court of the UN and the international community.