In Hammarskjold Crash, U.N. Report Bolsters Theory That Tragedy Was No Accident
Moreover, Judge Othman’s conclusion reinforced the theory that the plane had been deliberately brought down, either by what the judge called “direct attack” or by a “momentary distraction” that took away “the pilots’ attention for a matter of seconds at the critical point at which they were on their descent.”
At the time, Mr. Hammarskjold was flying to Ndola, in what was then Northern Rhodesia, for negotiations to end secession and civil war in the neighboring mineral-rich Congolese province of Katanga. The Katangese separatists were supported by Western political and mining interests not eager to see Mr. Hammarskjold’s diplomacy succeed.
In recent years, much attention has focused on the extent to which Western governments and their intelligence agencies, including those of Britain, the United States and Belgium, the former colonial power in Congo, have withheld information relating to Mr. Hammarskjold’s death.
Judge Othman said in a summary of the report that these countries had provided some “valuable new information” in response to his requests.
At the same time, he said, the “burden of proof” has now shifted to member states of the United Nations to “show that they have conducted a full review of records and archives in their custody or possession, including those that remain classified, for potentially relevant information.”
His remarks seemed to reinforce many earlier suggestions that, for whatever reason, Western governments were loath to disclose their full knowledge about what had befallen Mr. Hammarskjold, a Swedish diplomat who died at a tipping point in African history between colonial rule and independence.
At the time, Congo had achieved a fraught independence from Belgium, while British and Portuguese colonial rule still prevailed farther south. The secession of the southern Congolese province of Katanga illuminated the competition among rival superpowers and commercial interests for influence over the course of Africa’s future.
For supporters of Katanga’s secession, Mr. Hammarskjold was a reviled figure.
Such were the concerns about his safety that, in the hours before he died, his airplane, call-sign SE-BDY, flew a circuitous route, skirting Congolese territory and observing near-total radio silence before it began its approach to Ndola.
In the attempts to reconstruct the final moments of the flight, myriad theories about the causes of the crash have emerged, including miscalculations by the pilots of their altitude and the sudden appearance in the nighttime skies of a secessionist jet warplane flown by a mercenary pilot.
Judge Othman’s report said: “There is a significant amount of evidence from eyewitnesses that they observed more than one aircraft in the air, that the other aircraft may have been a jet, that SE-BDY may have been on fire before it crashed and/or that SE-BDY was fired upon or otherwise actively engaged by another aircraft. In its totality, this evidence is not easily dismissed.”
While the judge’s report is not a precursor to opening or reopening a formal investigation, he expressed hope it would help generate momentum to uncover more facts, “which is now more than ever necessary to allow us to fill the remaining gaps in the narrative.”
Susan Williams, a British academic whose 2011 book “Who Killed Hammarskjold?” inspired the latest phase of high-level interest in the crash, said Judge Othman’s report “reinforces my strong suspicion of foul play.”
“The onus is now on the U.K., the U.S., Belgium, France and South Africa, to release all relevant documents, including the secret records of their security and intelligence agencies and all intercepts” of radio traffic relating to the case, she said in an interview. She also urged multinational companies operating in the area to “release relevant records.”