World News

Judge Reports Progress in Hammarskjold Crash Inquiry

Posted June 1, 2018 3:50 p.m. EDT

LONDON — A prominent jurist conducting an investigation into the plane crash that killed U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold 57 years ago has made some progress in a long-standing quest for access to secret intelligence archives, a group following the inquiry said Friday.

In addition the jurist, Mohamed Chande Othman, a former chief justice of Tanzania, may widen the net to other countries and may seek clues in corporate archives from the era, said the group, the U.N. Association Westminster Branch.

Othman was reauthorized in March by the current secretary-general, António Guterres, to establish whether the plane crash near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia — now Zambia — was caused by “an external attack or threat,” in the words of an earlier report.

At the time, Hammarskjold, an iconic Swedish diplomat, was traveling with 15 other people on a chartered DC-6 airplane on a mission to resolve a crisis caused by the secession of the southern province of Katanga in newly independent Congo. The question of how he died — initially ascribed by some investigators to pilot error — has proved to be among the most abiding mysteries in U.N. history.

The crash happened at the height of the Cold War as rival political and commercial interests vied for influence in the former Belgian colony of Congo, a vast land that controlled enormous mineral reserves, as it still does.

Othman has been trying to discover whether previously hidden reports and transcripts in U.S. and other intelligence archives could help unravel the mystery, but he has largely been stonewalled. He is seeking to have some measure of reportable progress before the next General Assembly of the United Nations in three months’ time.

In his latest inquiries, Othman has sought to persuade each government that might have information, including the United States, to appoint what he has called an “independent and high-ranking official to conduct a dedicated internal review of their intelligence, security and defense archives.” The countries are Britain, Canada, the United States, Russia, France, Sweden, South Africa and Belgium.

In a statement on the latest developments in the inquiry, the U.N. Association said Belgium, France and Sweden had appointed senior officials to conduct those inquiries while the United States, Canada and Germany had “identified their preferred ‘high-ranking official’ and Russia has confirmed progress in this regard.”

The statement referred to South Africa and Britain as “stragglers” which “some fear are yet to respond, well behind the curve.”

The list of countries to be approached to appoint officials, the statement said, “might well be augmented to include Zambia, Portugal, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

In addition, it said, “independent observers will surely urge Judge Othman to target international corporations involved in the extractive industries at the time of the crash of Hammarskjold’s aircraft and their successor companies.”

It was not clear why previous inquiries had not sought input from the companies, such as Belgium’s Union Minière, that competed for access to the region’s mineral reserves and were closely involved in its politics.

Othman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the statement from the U.N. Association, an independent group that has strongly supported efforts to resolve the Hammarskjold mystery.

When the plane crashed, Hammarskjold was heading for Ndola on the night of Sept. 18, 1961, to pursue negotiations aimed at ending a secession that had won some covert Western support. At the time, a civil war raging in Katanga had drawn in U.N. forces as well as local gendarmes and an array of pro-secession mercenaries, including pilots flying warplanes including French-built jets.

One theory that has yet to be completely disproved is that one of those jets either flew close to or fired on Hammarskjold’s DC-6. Other accounts have suggested that its crew miscalculated the plane’s altitude, or that it was sabotaged.