Documentary claims UN secretary general was assassinated in 1961 plane crash

Scandinavian ‘Cold Case Hammarskjöld’ film says Belgian mercenary who was a former Royal Air Force pilot shot plane down

UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (left) at a meeting with Israel's foreign minister Golda Meir, December 31, 1958. (UN Photo)
UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (left) at a meeting with Israel's foreign minister Golda Meir, December 31, 1958. (UN Photo)

Scandinavian investigators are claiming they have solved the mystery surrounding the 1961 plane crash in Africa that killed United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, a published report over the weekend said.

According to Danish director Mads Brügger and Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdahl, Hammarskjöld’s plane was shot down by Belgian pilot Jan van Risseghem, who had flown Royal Air Force fighters during World War II and at the time was a mercenary pilot on behalf of Congolese rebels, the Danish film magazine Ekko reported.

The September 1961 crash, which took place while Hammarskjöld was on a mission to negotiate a peace deal during the Congo Crisis, killed all 16 people on board the DC-6 airliner.

At the time, van Risseghem was questioned and denied involvement, saying he was elsewhere. Investigators could not reach a definitive conclusion as to what caused the plane to crash.

The incident took place during the Cold War, in a local crisis that pitted American and Western interests against Soviet intervention in Africa. That backdrop led to intrigue and conspiracy theories as to how the accomplished Swedish diplomat had died.

After the crash, former US president Harry Truman was reported to have told reporters that Hammarskjöld “was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘when they killed him.'”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lays a wreath in commemoration of the 57th anniversary of Dag Hammarskjold death. (UN photo)

“We really stumble into the contours of a crime of almost incomprehensible dimensions,” Brügger said of his new documentary, “Cold Case Hammarskjöld,” which will be screened this month at the Sundance Film Festival.

The documentary makers found a witness who claimed van Risseghem, who died in 2007, confessed to having shot down Hammarskjöld’s plane and evidence that contradicted one of the pilot’s alibis as to his whereabouts that night.

The crash has spawned many conspiracy theories. In 2016 the UN sought to reopen its inquiry when documents emerged that revived a claim that Hammarskjöld may have been killed by apartheid-era South African agents backed by the CIA, Foreign Policy reported at the time. The documentary will apparently resolve the issue.

Hammarskjöld was the UN’s second secretary-general and is considered one of its most effective ever. Among his accomplishments was helping broker a ceasefire between Israel and Egypt in the 1956 Suez Crisis and the establishment of the UN’s first ever peacekeeping force in the Sinai desert to help police that deal.

Hammarskjöld met and negotiated with the giants of Israeli diplomacy at the time: prime minister David Ben-Gurion, foreign minister Golda Meir and ambassador to the UN Abba Eban.

A few months before his death, the secretary-general protested the Egyptian seizure of ships carrying Israeli goods through the Suez Canal.

Speaking at the UN a few months after the tragedy, Meir told the General Assembly that in 1959 Hammarskjöld had recommended a large-scale development plan for the Middle East, within which Palestinian refugees would find a constructive future.

“Can anyone doubt the need for such a project?” Meir asked. “His plan, if executed, would have brought about a far-reaching transformation of this underdeveloped area and would have resulted in the absorption of large numbers of refugees.”

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