wedish investigators probing if a secret South African spy operation could have been responsible for shooting down the plane carrying then UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, 54 years ago, are due back in the country next month.
New information has emerged prompting the reopening of the investigation into the controversial death of the UN head in Ndola, Zambia, in 1961. He was on a peace mission to the newly independent Congo.
Two Swedish researchers who travelled to South Africa in June this year to probe circumstances surrounding the plane crash, are confident they have obtained new leads that could help solve the 54 year mystery.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said on June 12 that an independent panel of experts who examined new details into the mysterious death of Hammarskjöld had delivered its report.
According to Ban’s spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, one of the issues the panel investigated was if the plane was shot down while flying over the old Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia.
A Swedish television and film documentary maker – Andreas Rocksén, MD of Laika Film & Television in Stockholm – and Swedish aid worker Göran Björkdahl are looking into the possible connection of a sinister South African organisation, the SA Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR) in the alleged assassination of Hammarskjöld.
“Part of our investigation is to look at how the ‘hit squad’ that allegedly bombed Hammarskjöld’s plane was linked to the SAIMR in the apartheid years,” said Rocksén.
The existence of this private intelligence outfit operating from South Africa first became known in 1990. The organisation had close ties with jailed Polish assassin Janusz Waluś. He was linked to the unit a few years before he murdered SA Communist Party leader Chris Hani.
The two Swedes have asked questions about a possible recruiting office apparently set up by Moise Tshombe, president of the breakaway Katanga province of the Congo, in the Empire Building in downtown Johannesburg in 1961.
The Katanga province, now part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, borders Angola and Zambia.
According to their sources, 61 mercenaries were recruited and sent to Katanga in the spring of 1961.
“What is interesting is that several of them seem to have been present at Ndola airport at the time of the crash. It would be very interesting to talk to people who have been in contact with that office,” said Björkdahl.
“We hope more details about the SAIMR’s existence and its subversive activities will come to light during our investigation,” added Björkdahl, who has done extensive investigations in Ndola and its surroundings over the past few years.
In the mid-1980s, the SAIMR placed an advertisement in the personal columns of The Citizen newspaper recruiting mercenaries for an operation elsewhere in Africa. According to documents later discovered, one of those recruited was Waluś.
Also pivotal to the Swedish team’s investigation are documents of the SAIMR’s alleged Operation Celeste, which were leaked earlier from the files of the State Security Agency (SSA). According to these documents, Operation Celeste was the plan to kill Hammarskjöld in a plane crash.
Susan Williams, a British historical researcher who wrote the book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa – published in 2011 – stumbled upon the Celeste files by chance in the archives of the former National Intelligence Agency.
The Celeste documents were first discovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998.
Going through the classified SSA files, Williams came across 12 pages of correspondence marked top secret, which referred to “a bizarre but apparently successful plot to blow up the plane”.
In her book, Williams writes: “The documents were headed with the Johannesburg address of an organisation called the SA Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR). Most were headed ‘Top Secret’ and ‘Your Eyes Only’.”
According to her, the men referred to in the documents as Commodore, Captain and someone called Congo Red – an agent on the ground in the Congo – all belonged to the SAIMR’s Delta Operations.
Williams writes that in this set of documents, Allen Dulles, the then director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, had promised full cooperation with Operation Celeste – which had also been agreed with British intelligence agency MI6.
The documents indicated that the reason for Hammarskjöld’s “removal” was that he was “becoming troublesome”.
The operation apparently involved the placing of a bomb, made of 3kg of TNT on Hammarskjöld’s plane from Leopoldville to Ndola. It was to be placed beneath the undercarriage so it would detonate soon after take-off when the wheels were retracted. A major mining conglomerate was referred to as the source of the TNT and technical equipment. But it seems things did not go exactly according to plan.
The downing of Hammarskjöld’s plane is linked to the greater assassination of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, who was also killed in 1961. Regarded by the West as a threat to stability in the region, Lumumba was also seen as a threat to mining activities in the Great Lakes region.
“Lumumba was a communist and Hammarskjöld a softie,” a source with knowledge of the operation told Williams.