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UN report bolsters foul play theory in Hammarskjold plane crash mystery

The crash is one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of the United Nations, where Hammarskjold has been exalted as a model international statesman. He is the only person to have been posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His name adorns buildings and plazas around the international organisation’s New York headquarters.

Initial investigations by the colonial authorities attributed the crash to pilot error, but suspicions of foul play multiplied in later years. Some theories hold that colonial-era mining interests, perhaps backed by Western intelligence agencies, had plotted to assassinate Hammarskjold, who was an avid promoter of African independence from colonial powers during a pivotal period of the Cold War.

Other provocative bits of information appear to corroborate a theory that South African or Belgian mercenaries may have forced Hammarskjold’s plane to crash. But the evidence is far from conclusive.

The wreckage of the downed plane, pictured several weeks after it crashed in 1961.

The wreckage of the downed plane, pictured several weeks after it crashed in 1961.

In a 2017 interim report, Othman wrote that “hostile action” from outside the plane may have doomed it, either through a direct attack or by prompting the pilots to fly too low.

He said member states of the United Nations that may be harboring information about the crash were obliged to show that they had fully reviewed their records and archives.

In his final report, Othman wrote that the attack hypothesis “remained plausible,” and that the burden of proof he had assigned to member states had “yet to be fully discharged.”

Last year Othman asked 14 countries to each appoint an independent official to review intelligence, security and defense archives for information related to the disaster. He wrote in the new report that his interactions with those countries and their appointees had since been “largely successful.”

But Othman also emphasised that certain countries — notably the United States, South Africa, Britain and Russia —”may yet have work to complete to ensure that comprehensive searches are conducted with a sufficient degree of transparency.”

Their cooperation, he wrote, is particularly important because they “must be almost certain to hold important undisclosed information” about the crash.

Othman singled out British and Rhodesian officials who appeared to have tried to steer the early inquiries “to conclude that the crash was the result of pilot error, rather than any type of external interference.” He also said South Africa had ignored his repeated requests for information regarding pro-apartheid mercenaries from that country who may have been implicated, a theory that gained some credibility in a documentary film released this year, “Cold Case Hammarskjold.”

The South American country Suriname released a memorial stamp following Hammarskjold's death.

The South American country Suriname released a memorial stamp following Hammarskjold’s death.Credit:Reuters

Officials of the four countries did not immediately comment on Othman’s report, which included a recommendation that the current secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, appoint an independent investigator to continue the work.

In a letter posted with the report, Guterres said that he agreed and that “it remains our shared responsibility to pursue the full truth of what happened on that fateful night in 1961.”

Susan Williams, a University of London scholar whose 2011 book, “Who Killed Hammarskjold?,” helped galvanise support for further investigation, welcomed Othman’s report, saying it had helped expose what she called “the wholly inadequate and evasive responses” of countries that had not fully cooperated with him.

By contrast, she particularly commended the assistance provided by Zimbabwe. Formerly the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, it was the central territory of a British-ruled federation that included Northern Rhodesia, where the plane crashed.

The information supplied by Zimbabwe in Othman’s report contained new details on Julien. They included a document in which he stated to his doctors that there had been an explosion aboard the aircraft, followed by smaller explosions that forced the plane down, and that he had escaped by throwing himself through a safety hatch. The information had been suppressed by Rhodesian officials.

“This indicates that the Rhodesian authorities attempted to shut off any public knowledge of possible external interference,” Williams said in an email. “It also suggests that Julien may have said more about the last moments of the crash than is available as yet.”

New York Times

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