Former UN chief, Hammarskjöld, likely killed – report

Dag Hammarskjöld
Dag Hammarskjöld

A new UN-mandated report has found it “appears plausible” that an external attack or threat might have led to the fatal plane crash that killed former UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld.

The chartered DC6 plane registered as SE-BDY crashed just after midnight on September 17 to 18, 1961, near Ndola (then Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia).

The crash killed Mr. Hammarskjöld and 14 of the 15 members of the party accompanying him, with the sole survivor succumbing to injuries a few days later.

Mr. Hammarskjöld was a Swedish diplomat, economist, and author who served as the second Secretary-General of the UN, from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in September 1961.

The report of the Eminent Person, Mohamed Chande Othman, concluded that it was almost certain that Mr. Hammarskjöld and the members of the party accompanying him were not assassinated after landing.

According to the report, the late UN chief and all passengers died from injuries sustained during the plane crash, either instantaneously, or soon after.

The report found: “There is 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.

“It appears plausible that an external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash, whether by way of a direct attack causing SE-BDY to crash or by causing a momentary distraction of the pilots.

“Such a distraction need only have taken away the pilots’ attention for a matter of seconds at the critical point at which they were in their descent to have been potentially fatal.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has transmitted the report of the Eminent Person, appointed pursuant to General Assembly resolution 71/260, to the President of the General Assembly.

Mr. Guterres, in a statement issued by his Spokesman Stephane Dujarric, called on UN Member States to make available information concerning the 56-year-old incident.

The UN chief was of the view that the information made available to the UN to date had been insufficient and that it seems likely that important additional information exists.

Over the year, a series of inquiries have explored various hypotheses for the crash, including aerial or ground attack or other external threat (“external attack or threat”), sabotage, hijacking, and human error.

The Eminent Person is also exploring whether a sabotage – possibly a bomb planted on the plane and activated before landing – led to the crash, “as part of a plot to ‘remove’ Hammarskjöld”.

Mr. Othman reported that he attempted to obtain access from South Africa to the ‘Operation Celeste’ documents, which concern this claim, but at the time of writing his report, access to the documents had not been granted.

He noted that in the time available, and in view of the emergence of new matters requiring further analysis of facts, he was not able to conclude all aspects of the work.

Mr. Othman noted that it appears to him “reasonable to conclude that the burden of proof has now shifted to Member States”.

According to him, this is to show that they have conducted a full review of records and archives in their custody or possession, including those that remain classified, for potentially relevant information.

He also recommended that Member States appoint an independent and high-ranking official to conduct a dedicated and internal review of their archives, in particular, their intelligence, security and defence archives.

This is with a view to ensuring comprehensive access to relevant information and establishing what happened on that fateful night.

“An incident such as this where one or more of the hypotheses of the air crash may have involved an adverse or hostile act or acts on the Secretary-General of the United Nations is a matter of highest public interest,” he noted.

Mr. Othman urged for meaningful participation of key Member States in identifying material relevant to the tragic incident.

“This is a step that must be taken before this matter, and the memories of those who perished on flight SE-BDY in the service of the Organisation, may rest,” he concluded.


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