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U.N. to Probe Whether Iconic Secretary-General Was Assassinated

Newly­ discovered documents revive claim that Dag Hammarskjold may have been killed by South African agents backed by the CIA.

circa 1957:  Swedish politician and diplomat Dag Hammarskjold (1905 - 1961), he died in an aircrash in Zambia while Secretary General of the United Nations.  (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
circa 1957: Swedish politician and diplomat Dag Hammarskjold (1905 - 1961), he died in an aircrash in Zambia while Secretary General of the United Nations. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki­-moon will propose reopening an inquiry into allegations that Dag Hammarskjold, one of the most revered secretaries-general in the organization’s history, was assassinated by an apartheid-era South African paramilitary organization that was backed by the CIA, British intelligence, and a Belgian mining company, according to several officials familiar with the case.

The move follows the South African government’s recent discovery of decades old intelligence documents detailing the alleged plot, dubbed Operation Celeste, that was designed to kill Hammarskjold. In a recent letter to the United Nations, South African authorities said the documents have been transferred to their Justice Ministry so U.N. officials could review them, according to diplomatic sources. The South African Mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. The CIA has previously dismissed allegations that it was behind Hammarskjold’s death as “absurd and without foundation.”

This new information (the discovery of which has not previously been reported) is surfacing more than a year after a U.N. panel of experts, chaired by Tanzanian Chief Justice Mohamed Chande Othman, wrapped up a wide-ranging review of fresh evidence that had emerged in the years following the mysterious 55-­year-old air tragedy. The panel urged the secretary-general, ­­who is already required by a 1962 General Assembly resolution to report on any new evidence shedding light on Hammarskjold’s death, to keep pressing governments and their intelligence agencies to disclose or declassify information that could fill gaps in the evidence surrounding the tragedy.

Copies of the South African documents describing Operation Celeste were first made public about 18 years ago, but South Africa was unable to locate the original documents, making it impossible to substantiate their authenticity by subjecting them to ink and paper testing. It remains unclear precisely which documents the South Africans have discovered. But officials familiar with the South African letter to the U.N. said Pretoria confirmed that it had located previously lost documents related to Operation Celeste. The discovery, however, raised hopes that the U.N. could verify whether the documents were in fact produced at the time of Hammarskjold’s death.

In September 1961, Hammarskjold was flying on a peace mission from the Congolese capital of Léopoldville, now called Kinshasa, to the Ndola airfield in the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia, renamed Zambia after independence. Hammarskjold’s Douglas DC­6B plane, called “Albertina,” crashed into the forest on its approach to the Ndola airfield. Hammarskjold was believed to have been tossed out of the plane upon impact, fatally crushing his chest, spine, and ribs. Fourteen other passengers and crew members died in the crash; a fifteenth, American Harold Julien, succumbed to his injuries a week later. Before his death, Julien told authorities that there had been an explosion in the plane before it went down.

A Rhodesian commission of inquiry concluded in 1962 that the plane had crashed as a result of pilot error — a fatal miscalculation of the height of the forest tree line. A subsequent U.N. inquiry could not establish the cause of the crash, leaving open the possibility that Hammarskjold could have died either as a result of an accident or foul play. In the ensuing decades, Hammarskjold’s death has spawned a dizzying array of conspiracy theories that claim he was variously shot down by a CIA contractor or American ground troops, shot in the head by a South African mercenary after surviving the plane crash, or killed by a Belgian pilot who claimed to have shot down the plane. The first U.N. official to identify his body swore that he had a bullet sized hole in his forehead. But the autopsy, including X-rays of Hammarskjold’s body, undercut such claims.

The U.N. has also largely discarded a host of other claims, including an allegation that a South African mercenary supposedly named Swanepoel had once drunkenly boasted that he had participated in the assassination.

The new evidence is by no means conclusive, officials insisted, noting that it simply represents another piece in a much larger investigative puzzle that might never be solved. And some observers familiar with the investigation cautioned that even if the documents prove to be authentic there remains a possibility that they may have been produced as part of a disinformation campaign by any number of possible sources, from the Soviets to soldiers of fortune seeking to brandish their standing with South African intelligence by claiming responsibility for Hammarskjold’s death.

But the U.N. chief felt that it is relevant enough to justify a fresh look at what has turned out to be the most notorious and perplexing cold case in the U.N.’s history. According to U.N. officials, the decision to press forward reflects the influence of Jan Eliasson, a former Swedish foreign minister who currently serves as the U.N.’s deputy secretary-general. But some senior diplomats have questioned whether the latest findings will simply lead the U.N. on a fruitless pursuit of any number of the conspiracy theories, many of them contradictory, associated with Hammarskjold’s death.

Next month, Ban will issue a five-page note describing the existence of the new evidence and asking the General Assembly to appoint an eminent person, most likely Othman, to examine the documents and see where they lead. Ban’s deputy spokesman, Farhan Haq, declined to comment on the new evidence or the U.N. chief’s recommendations. But he told Foreign Policy that “the secretary-general remains personally committed to fulfilling the U.N.’s duty to the distinguished former secretary-general and those who accompanied him, to endeavor to establish the facts after so many years.”

The Hammarskjold case gained new momentum in 2012, when a British scholar, Susan Williams, published a book, entitled Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa, which uncovered new evidence, including eyewitnesses accounts by locals who recalled seeing the plane go down in flames and the testimony of Charles Southall, a retired U.S. naval officer, who said he heard a recording of a pilot boasting about shooting down what appeared to be Hammarskjold’s plane. Southall would later express some confusion over whether he had actually heard the radio intercept or read a transcript of it.

“‘I see a transport plane coming low. All the lights are on,'” Southall, who had been stationed at a NSA listening post in Cyprus, recalled the pilot saying. “‘I’m going to go down to make a run on it. Yes, it’s the Transair DC­6. It’s the plane. I’ve hit it. There are flames. It’s going down. It’s crashing.'”

Another American, Paul Abram, who claims to have been stationed at an NSA listening post in Iraklion, Greece, told the U.N. panel in May 2015 that he had also heard a radio intercept of an accented non-American on the night of Hammarskjold’s death saying: “The Americans just shot down a U.N. plane.”

Williams’s book spurred the establishment in 2012 of the Hammarskjold Commission, a voluntary body of four international jurists and lawyers, including the Rt. Hon. Stephen Sedley, a British judge; Richard Goldstone, a former chief prosecutor for the U.N. war crimes tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia; Ambassador Hans Corell, a Swede who served as the U.N.’s top lawyer; and Wilhelmina Thomassen, a former Dutch Supreme Court judge. The commission concluded in its final 2013 report that “there is persuasive evidence that the aircraft was subjected to some form of attack or threat as it circled to land at Ndola.” It also concluded that it “is highly likely that the entirety of the local and regional Ndola radio traffic on the night of 17-­18 September 1961 was tracked and recorded by the NSA, and possibly also by the CIA.” Their findings prompted the U.N. secretary-general to assemble his own U.N. panel, headed by Othman, to revisit the Hammarskjold case in light of the new evidence.

Researchers say many key players in the region, including white minority governments, had clashed with Hammarskjold, whose U.N peacekeepers had been battling Belgian-backed separatists in the mineral-rich Congolese province of Katanga. Days before Hammarskjold’s death, the U.N. launched an offensive against Katanga’s separatists as part of an effort to drive hundreds of Belgian officers and European mercenaries out of the country.

The U.N. leader was advocating for Congo’s full independence, while Belgium, with some support from Britain, the United States, and South Africa, wanted to ensure that Katanga’s riches –­­ which included the uranium ore used in the production of the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki­­ — remained in friendly hands and out of the reach of the Soviet Union. Several months earlier, the CIA had played a role in the assassination by Belgian officers and Katangese separatists of Congolese liberation leader, Patrice Lumumba, who was suspected of moving too closely to the Soviet Union.

Hammarskjold, meanwhile, died while en route to discuss a cease-fire with Moise Tshombe, the Belgian-backed leader of Katanga’s secession drive. His broader mission was to convince at Tshombe to ditch his foreign backers and make peace with Congo’s pro-Western leaders. “All those parties — the Belgians, the South Africans, the CIA — had a reason for opposing Dag Hammarskjold’s mission,” Goldstone told FP.

The possible existence of an alleged CIA-backed plot to kill Hammarskjold first emerged in 1998, when the South African National Intelligence Agency turned over a file to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission related to the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, the leader of the South African Communist Party. But the file also included copies of eight documents detailing internal correspondence among members of the South African Institute for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, an alleged front for a clandestine mercenary organization active in Congo in the early 1960s.

The documents, which contain an alleged exchange between SAIMR’s “commodore” and “captain,” said Operation Celeste was meant to “remove” Hammarskjold, who had grown increasingly “troublesome.” One document, marked “top secret” describes a meeting including representatives of SAIMR and Britain’s intelligence agencies, MI5, and the Special Operations Executive, an apparent reference to a British agency that was set up in World War II to carry out espionage and sabotage operations in German-occupied Europe. The documents state that CIA director Allen Dulles concurs that “Dag is becoming troublesome … and should be removed.” They also claim that Dulles pledged the support of his people on the ground.

According to the papers, saboteurs were to place six pounds of TNT in the wheel well of Hammarskjold’s plane before it departed from Léopoldville, Congo, for the Ndola airport.

The explosives were supposed to detonate when Hammarskjold’s pilot retracted the landing wheels. A backup plan described in the papers called for detonating the bomb remotely as it began its descent into Ndola. There is no hard evidence that the plane ever blew up.

The Othman panel gave the theory little credence last year, and pieces of wreckage bore no solid evidence that a bomb brought down the plane. The allegation, according to the panel, was based on copies of the South African SAIMR documents that couldn’t be authenticated.

One organization cited in one of the documents, the Special Operations Executive, was believed to have disbanded in the late 1940s. South African authorities could provide no record that a mercenary team existed using that name. The U.N. panel concluded that there was no way to even prove the documents were authentic without subjecting the original paper and ink to testing. The copies, the panel concluded, have “weak probative value” as the U.N. was unable to verify their authenticity or to even establish whether the maritime institute existed. The theory that a bomb was planted in Hammarskjold’s plane, the panel concluded, “is weakly supported by the body of new information” it obtained.

The Hammarskjold Commission was even more skeptical. Hans Corell, a Swedish lawyer who served on the Hammarskjold Commission, said the Operation Celeste documents seemed “fishy. We were not impressed.” He said the commission concluded that neither the documents, nor their contents, could be considered “trustworthy.”

Susan Williams, who has studied SAIMR’s activities for years, said it would be a mistake to dismiss the papers’ authenticity out of hand. “I certainly would not discount the documents, which is why I went to so much trouble to find them,” she said. “Some of them may be what they are purported to be and some of them may not be what they are purported to be.”

Goldstone told FP said he continues to have a “strong feeling” that Hammarskjold’s death was not an accident. But the commission’s hunches about the cause of death differed in one critical aspect from the South African account of Operation Celeste. “Our view was that the bomb being placed in the plane was less likely than it having been shot down,” Goldstone said.

He recalled interviewing four eyewitnesses, including three local workers, who said they saw the plane descend in flames. Some said they saw a second plane open fire on Hammarskjold’s plane. Goldstone recalled that none of the locals had previously been interviewed by the Rhodesian commission or the U.N. “The Rhodesians tended to dismiss black witnesses as being unreliable,” he said. “It was clearly a racist issue.”

One of the key obstacles to finalizing the investigation is the reluctance of key powers, principally the United States and Britain, to release documents related to the case.

While Corell was skeptical about the likelihood of the CIA-backed plot described in the Operation Celeste documents, he believes U.S. intelligence agencies are withholding vital evidence that could help resolve the mystery surrounding Hammarskjold’s death. Corell said he is particularly troubled by the failure to obtain transcripts of air traffic reports on the night of the tragedy.

The Ndola airport did not record radio traffic on the night of Hammarskjold’s death, even though it possessed the technical capability to do so. A British diplomat, Sir Brian Unwin, who was at the Ndola airport on the night of Hammarskjold’s death recalled that two American aircraft had been running their engines on the airfield throughout the night of Hammarskjold’s death, fueling suspicion that they were monitoring radio traffic.

The United States claims it has no record of Hammarskjold’s radio communications that night, despite Southall’s claims to the contrary. In its own response to questions from the U.N., the U.S. Mission to the United Nations also said they hadn’t found evidence that any American planes were on the tarmac at Ndola that night.

But Corell remains skeptical. “We came to the conclusion that the Americans were listening to everything you could listen to in the air,” Corell said. “I’m still suspicious of this. I’m sure they made a transcript of the radio traffic.” The failure to close the books on the Hammarskjold case has gnawed at the victims’ relatives. Hynrich Wieschhoff, whose father died alongside Hammarskjold, welcomes the U.N.’s renewed interest in the case. But he fears the latest focus on a Operation Celeste may lead to another dead end. Meanwhile, he is growing frustrated with what he sees as the U.N.’s piecemeal approach to the investigation; that is, limiting its investigation to pursuing new facts as they come to light. What is needed, he said, is “a full-fledged investigation” that reviews the complete body of evidence from past and current inquiries. He credited the the U.N. panel for doing a “masterful job” despite its limited resources and time; the panel was only given three months to carry out its work. “The evidence is staler, memories are fading, and individuals are dying,” he told FP. “Let’s clear the tables, forget about politics, and get an answer.

Photo Credit: MPI/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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