The story of one of the Cold War’s greatest unsolved mysteries — and the new effort to solve it

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Around midnight on Sept. 18, 1961, a plane carrying U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold crashed nine miles from its intended destination, the town of Ndola in Northern Rhodesia, now the independent republic of Zambia. The 56-year-old Swede and 15 other people aboard the aircraft perished.

According to one account, Hammarskjold’s body was found in the forest near the wreckage. He was “lying on his back, propped up against an ant hill, immaculately dressed as always, in neatly pressed trousers and a white shirt with cuff links.” Hammarskjold is the only U.N. secretary general to have died while in office.

At the time, both the governments of Sweden and Northern Rhodesia claimed the incident was the result of pilot error. There was little evidence to be gleaned from the flight’s sole survivor, an American sergeant who, before succumbing to his injuries, had said the plane experienced a series of explosions. A U.N. investigation the following year yielded no clear conclusion. It downplayed testimony from local villagers that a smaller, second aircraft may have shot down the plane.

Not surprisingly, the circumstances of Hammarskjold’s death have always carried a suspicion of foul play. The Swedish diplomat was to meet with representatives from a breakaway state in the Congo — a mineral-rich, fledgling nation that was coveted still by outside powers. There were many parties, even some in the United States, who perhaps did not want to see Hammarskjold’s peace mission bear fruit.

On Monday, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously approved a motion asking current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to appoint an independent panel of experts to investigate new evidence that has come to light regarding the 1961 plane crash. [Continue reading…]

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