Probe into 1961 United Nations plane crash uncovers new information from Canadian documents

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By Geoffrey York, Africa Bureau Chief, Johannesburg, October 8, 2019

In 1961, the plane carrying Dag Hammarskjold, seen here in 1953, may have been downed by an external attack.THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

An investigation into one of the Cold War’s oldest mysteries, the plane crash in Northern Rhodesia that killed the then-United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold, has uncovered new information from Canadian records to suggest that three mercenaries were in the region at the time of the crash – and that secret tactics by British mining interests may have played a role.

Canada was one of 14 countries asked to search their historical records for any documents that could help solve the riddle of the plane crash that killed Mr. Hammarskjold in 1961 while he was on a peace mission in Congo.

For decades, there have been unconfirmed allegations that the Swedish diplomat was deliberately killed by attackers who shot down his chartered DC-6 near Ndola in what is now Zambia. Fifteen others also died in the crash.

Rumours have swirled around the crash because of the lucrative Western mining interests in Katanga, a mineral-rich region near Ndola where Western-backed insurgents were fighting to secede from newly independent Congo. At the time of the crash, the UN chief was trying to negotiate a ceasefire to end the secession attempt.

In a 95-page report this week, the head of a UN-appointed investigation said it “appears plausible” that the plane crash might have been caused by “an external attack or threat.”

The investigator, former Tanzanian chief justice Mohamed Chande Othman, complained that four countries – Britain, the United States, South Africa and Russia – had failed to provide any substantial response to his requests for information from their intelligence and security archives.

He said Britain, South Africa and the United States are almost certainly holding “important undisclosed information” about the plane crash, including intelligence reports and intercepted communications. This information could be the “missing link” in the mystery, he said.

At least one of these countries tried to persuade earlier inquiries to reach a conclusion of “pilot error,” Mr. Othman said, without specifying the country.

Because of the lack of a response from the four countries, he requested more time to complete his investigation.

Canada was among the countries that Mr. Othman praised for co-operating with the investigation by appointing senior officials to pore over their historical records.

The Canadian research uncovered a 1961 report from Canadian diplomats at the UN, stating that an airplane had been spotted at Ndola with three mercenaries on board. The mercenaries, who had previously been expelled from Katanga, were reportedly on their way from South Africa to Katanga. When questioned about this, local authorities had “given apparent disinformation regarding its passengers,” according to Mr. Othman’s report, quoting the Canadian information.

The same Canadian document cited reports that two mercenaries, British and Belgian citizens, were in Ndola around the same time. One of them was British mercenary Richard Browne, who was attempting to enter Katanga.

The investigation also uncovered correspondence between a Canadian diplomat and a British diplomat, just a few days after the plane crash, in which the two diplomats agreed that British mining companies may have been “clandestinely” exerting pressure in the region.

Mr. Othman, in his report, said the Western mining interests in Katanga may have been “pivotal.” Commenting on the Canadian correspondence, he said: “Although the United Kingdom strongly denied allegations of any involvement in the death of Hammarskjold, the apparent admission of the influence that British commercial interests had on Katanga policy is an important sphere for further searches.”

In a statement this week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the investigation had found “new information about possible causes of the crash.”

Among the discoveries, he said, was information about “the capacity of the armed forces of Katanga or others to have staged a possible attack against the Secretary-General’s plane” and “the presence in the area of foreign paramilitary, including pilots, and intelligence personnel.”

Mr. Guterres said the investigation “will need to continue with renewed urgency.”

He is “deeply committed to doing everything to support the search for the truth,” he said. “We owe this to Dag Hammarskjold and the members of the party accompanying him.”