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'Significant new evidence' cited in 1961 death of U.N.'s Hammarskjold

September 09, 2013|By Carol J. Williams
  • An international legal inquiry into the 1961 plane crash that killed U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold claimed Monday to have identified "significant new evidence" of possible sabotage that justifies reopening the inconclusive U.N. investigation done in 1962. In this July 1960 file photo, Hammarskjold, right, meets newly elected Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba at the world body headquarters in New York.
An international legal inquiry into the 1961 plane crash that killed U.N.… ( Los Angeles Times )

It was 1961 and the Cold War battle for influence in newly independent African states was sharply focused on the Congo.

The first elected leader, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, had been kidnapped, tortured and killed by a military junta earlier in the year. With the anarchic new state falling under the sway of the Soviet Union, Katanga politician Moise Tshombe cleaved his province and its wealth of uranium, copper and cobalt mines into a separate state supported and protected by former Belgian colonial masters.

U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was reportedly on the brink of reunifying the two Congolese factions when his plane crashed on approach to Ndola, Northern Rhodesia, where he was to get Tshombe's signature on a truce.

With an array of powerful interests working against any unified Congo aligned with Moscow, conspiracy theories have thrived through the 52 years since the U.N. chief's death. And they have been revived and invigorated by a report released Monday that recommends reopening the inconclusive 1962 U.N. investigation of the plane crash.

The 61-page report of the Hammarskjold Commission, a panel of prominent international jurists, brings to light the probable existence of "significant new evidence" that would provide conclusive proof of whether the plane was shot down by a second aircraft reported by numerous witnesses to have been in the vicinity just before the crash.

But the vital evidence that could confirm or finally rule out foul play -- tape recordings of communications with the doomed plane and among those monitoring the diplomacy and superpower wrangling around the Congo -- resides with the U.S. National Security Agency, which continues to classify the materials as "top secret."

There were many who opposed Hammarskjold's peace mission. A Congo state unified and under Marxist rule was an unwelcome development for European mining interests worried that their investments would be nationalized. Nor did Washington relish the prospect of the Soviet Union having access to the world's largest deposits of uranium in the midst of a nuclear arms race. And Britain, then the colonial power in white-minority-ruled Northern Rhodesia -- today's Zambia -- feared the example of emancipation and majority rule on its African possession's border.

"With the large commercial interests which rode on Katanga's bid to secede from the newly independent Congo, it is unsurprising that the death of Dag Hammarskjold was regarded in some quarters as too convenient to be an accident," the commission noted.

The Hammarskjold Commission and the National Security Archive, an independent documentation research center in Washington, both submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for recordings or documents related to communications with the plane as it approached Ndola just after midnight on Sept. 18, 1961. The researchers also sought any reference in the intelligence agency's records to one plane firing on another on the night of the crash.

The NSA replied that it had located three documents "responsive" to the researchers' inquiries but that two were still under seal despite the agency's policy of declassifying records after 50 years. Those two have been barred from release by an Obama administration executive order, as their disclosure "could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security," John Prados, the senior fellow at the archive who handled the FOIA queries, said of the response he got from the NSA.

The third document "originated with another government agency" to which it has been referred, said archive researcher Mary Curry, reading from the NSA's Aug. 20 reply. But the NSA didn't identify the agency, and no other response to the FOIA requests has been received by the commission or the archive, Curry said.

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