Letters Say Hammarskjold Death Western Plot


August 19, 1998

South Africa's truth commission chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Wednesday released documents he said suggested a Western plot was behind the death of the head of the United Nations in 1961.

Tutu said his Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is investigating crimes committed during the apartheid era, had decided to release the documents although it could not verify their authenticity. ``The commission has discovered...documents discussing the sabotage of the aircraft in which the U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold died on the night of September 17 to 18, 1961,'' Tutu told a news conference before leaving to spend a year in the United States. ``We have been unable to investigate the veracity of these documents and of allegations that South Africa or other Western intelligence agencies were involved in bringing about the air crash,'' he said.

The letters, headed the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR)-- said to be a front company for the South African military-- include references to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the British MI5 security service. ``In a meeting between MI5, special ops executive and the SAIMR, the following emerged,'' reads one document marked Top Secret, ``it is felt that Hammarskjold should be removed.'' ``I want his removal to be handled more efficiently than was Patrice,'' the document said. The CIA last year opened its files on Cold War assassinations and admitted it ordered the murder of Patrice Lumumba, Congolese independence hero and pro-Soviet prime minister. Another letter headed ``Operation Celeste'' gives details of orders to plant explosives in the wheel bay of an aircraft primed to go off as the wheels were retracted on takeoff.

Hammarskjold and 15 other people were killed when their aircraft crashed entering what was then Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, where the U.N. head was due to meet rebel leader Moise Tshombe to negotiate a truce in the Congolese civil war. The United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to newly liberated Congo in 1960 when the new government asked for help in the face of mutiny in its army, secession in Tshombe's Katanga provinces and the invervention of Belgian troops. Newspapers at the time alleged British involvement in a plot to kill Hammarskjold to prevent U.N. support for Tshombe and his diamond-rich Katanga province. ``We have it on good authority that UNO (the United Nations Organisation) will want to get its greedy paws on the province,'' reads a letter dated July 12, 1960.

The letters came to light as truth commission researchers were ploughing through South African security documents in preparation for the truth commission's final report. Tutu said the truth commission mandate to investigate such matters expired at the end of July and it therefore decided to publish the documents with names of individuals deleted and hand them to Justice Minister Dullah Omar. The archbishop, whose purple-robed figure has come to symbolise the painful process of reconciliation in South Africa, said he hoped releasing the documents would help set an example for more transparency in government.

Tutu was due to leave Cape Town later on Wednesday for a year as visiting theology professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He will return briefly in October to present the commission's final report to President Nelson Mandela. The commission's mandate to investigate gross human rights violations ended on July 31 but its independent amnesty committee is still wading through thousands of amnesty applications which will keep it busy well into next year.

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