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UN Leader Dag Hammarskjold Died in Mysterious Circumstances in 1961. What Really Happened?

August 16, 2019 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Shortly after midnight on September 18, 1961, a chartered DC-6 airplane carrying , the British high commissioner at Ndola, Lord Alport, showed little concern after the U.N. plane failed to land at its scheduled time, instead insisting that Hammarskjold had decided to go elsewhere. Then there was the fact that search for the plane’s wreckage and crash site didn’t begin for hours after the crash, though witnesses had reported seeing a great flash in the sky soon after midnight.

Local residents in the area had seen a second plane in the sky that night, but their testimony was discounted or ignored by colonial authorities, the Guardian reported in 2011. The crash’s sole survivor, U.N. security officer Harold Julien, also spoke before he died of an explosion on board the plane, but the authorities assumed he was too ill and sedated to be taken seriously.

Two days after Hammarskjold’s death, former U.S. President Harry Truman insinuated to reporters that the U.N. leader had been assassinated, saying he “was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘when they killed him.’”

Children eagerly gather to shake hands with visiting United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold on January 17, 1961 in Ridgeville, South Africa. Hammarskjold was making a tour of Pretoria province following talks with South African Prime Minister Verwoerd.

Theories on who was responsible

Such uncertainties have fueled several long-running conspiracy theories, centered around the powerful groups inside and outside Africa who hadn’t wanted Hammarskjold’s peacekeeping efforts in Congo to succeed.

According to one popular theory, Katangese separatists ordered a Belgian mercenary pilot, Jan van Risseghem, to shoot down the secretary-general’s plane. Van Risseghem was mentioned as a possible suspect in a cable sent by the U.S. ambassador to Congo just hours after the crash (but not declassified until 2014). But he was never interviewed by authorities about the crash; apparently flight logs gave him an alibi by showing he had not been flying at the time, and there are questions about whether he was even in the region.

Another long-standing theory centers on documents released from apartheid-era South Africa in the late 1990s, which suggest that a white militia group called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR) orchestrated the plane crash that killed Hammarskjold—with the support of both British intelligence and the CIA. Though British officials claimed that the documents were …read more


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