RAF vet­eran ‘ad­mit­ted 1961 killing of UN chief’

The Observer - - Front Page - Emma Gra­ham-Har­ri­son, An­dreas Rock­sen & Mads Brüg­ger

New ev­i­dence has emerged link­ing an RAF vet­eran to the death in 1961 of the UN sec­re­tary gen­eral Dag Ham­marskjöld in a mys­te­ri­ous plane crash in south­ern Africa.

Jan van Ris­seghem has been named as a pos­si­ble at­tacker be­fore, but has al­ways been de­scribed sim­ply as a Bel­gian pi­lot. The Ob­server can now re­veal that he had ex­ten­sive ties to Bri­tain, in­clud­ing a Bri­tish mother and wife, trained with the RAF and was dec­o­rated by Bri­tain for his ser­vice in the sec­ond world war.

Film-mak­ers in­ves­ti­gat­ing the 1961 crash for a doc­u­men­tary, Cold Case Ham­marskjöld, have found a friend of Van Ris­seghem who claimed the pi­lot con­fessed to shoot­ing down the UN plane. They also gath­ered tes­ti­mony from an­other pi­lot that un­der­mines one of his al­i­bis for that night.

Van Ris­seghem, whose fa­ther was Bel­gian, es­caped oc­cu­pied Eu­rope at the start of the war to join the re­sis­tance in Eng­land. He trained with the RAF and flew mis­sions over Nazi-held ar­eas. Dur­ing this pe­riod he met and mar­ried his Bri­tish wife, ce­ment­ing a life­long con­nec­tion.

At the end of the war the cou­ple re­turned to Bel­gium, but by 1961 Van Ris­seghem was in the Congo, fly­ing for sep­a­ratist rebels who had de­clared in­de­pen­dence for the break­away prov­ince of Katanga. There,

the doc­u­men­tary claims, he was or­dered to shoot down a plane car­ry­ing Ham­marskjöld, who was on a se­cret mid­night jour­ney to try to bro­ker peace. The film will pre­miere at the Sun­dance fes­ti­val in two weeks.

It was not clear at the time of the crash, which also killed all 15 peo­ple trav­el­ling with the sec­re­tary gen­eral, if it had been caused by sab­o­tage or was a tragic ac­ci­dent. More than half a cen­tury later the UN is still in­ves­ti­gat­ing what hap­pened on 18 Septem­ber 1961. But as news of Ham­marskjöld’s death emerged, the RAF vet­eran was ap­par­ently an ob­vi­ous sus­pect. He was named as the pos­si­ble at­tacker by the US am­bas­sador to the Congo, in a se­cret cable sent the day of Ham­marskjöld’s death and only re­cently de­clas­si­fied.

For decades, Van Ris­seghem ap­peared to have proof that he wasn’t fly­ing in the re­gion on the night Ham­marskjöld’s plane, the Al­bertina, came down out­side Ndola in Zam­bia, then called North­ern Rhode­sia.

Flight logs ap­pear to show Van Ris­seghem was not fly­ing for most of that month, re­turn­ing to duty only on 20 Septem­ber. How­ever, Roger Bracco, an­other mer­ce­nary fly­ing for the Katangese, told film­mak­ers that his col­league’s log­books are dot­ted with ap­par­ent forg­eries.

He does not believe that Van Ris­seghem shot down Ham­marskjöld. But when asked in an in­ter­view for the film if he con­sid­ered the log­book a fake, he re­sponds: “I won’t say so, but … I didn’t recog­nise the story [it told].” Leaf­ing through the book, he later di­rectly ac­cuses Van Ris­seghem of forgery. “This is fake,” Bracco says bluntly of one flight des­ti­na­tion, and goes on to add that some of the names listed for co-pi­lots are not real.

A friend has also come for­ward to claim that, less than a decade af­ter Ham­marskjöld’s death, Van Ris­seghem told him he had at­tacked the plane. Pierre Cop­pens met Van Ris­seghem in 1965, when he was fly­ing for a para­chute train­ing cen­tre in Bel­gium. Over sev­eral con­ver­sa­tions, he claimed, the pi­lot de­tailed how he over­came var­i­ous tech­ni­cal chal­lenges to down the plane, un­aware of who was trav­el­ling in­side.

Van Ris­seghem died in 2007. Sur­viv­ing rel­a­tives, in­clud­ing his widow and niece, say he was not in­volved in any at­tack. His widow told the Ob­server that he was in Rhode­sia ne­go­ti­at­ing the pur­chase of a plane for Con­golese rebels and the log­books pro­vide proof that he was not fly­ing for Katanga at the time.

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