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Considering the number of nations and political leaders we have had, it should not really come as a surprise to learn that a few have gone to meet their maker in unconventional ways. The first Sri Lankan Prime Minister DS Senanayake died after he was thrown from his horse in 1952; Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt dived into the sea while on holiday at Portsea, Victoria in 1967, and was never seen again; and Icelandic Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson died along with his wife and grandson in a fire at his summer retreat on 10 July, 1970.
But, whether active in shuttle diplomacy, promoting foreign relations or campaigning for re-election, politicians are frequent flyers, and the occupation has suffered more than most in air incidents. It's not just accidents of course; many have perished as military or terrorist targets. There is a fair share of unexplained incidents too, and when the politician has political enemies, conspiracy theories abound.
Arvid Lindman, Sweden
Former Rear Admiral and two-time Prime Minister of Sweden, Arvid Lindman1 lost his life in an air accident six years after his second spell in the office. In an age when it was still unusual for travellers to fly, the 74-year-old Lindman was a passenger in a Royal Dutch Airlines Douglas DC-2 flying from Croydon, UK, to Amsterdam on 9 December, 1936. Taking off in heavy fog, the pilot rapidly lost visibility and veered off course towards higher ground at Purley, crashing into houses and killing 14 of the 16 on board.
The dead also included the Spanish aviation pioneer Juan de la Cierva, inventor of the autogiro.
Wladyslaw Sikorski, Poland
Polish national hero Wladyslaw Sikorski2 made his name fighting for independence against the Russian occupiers in the early part of the 20th Century. He led the Polish Army to victory in the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, and served as Prime Minister in the newly-independent republic. Losing power in a military coup in 1926, he left politics, but returned after Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939, forming a government-in-exile, based in the UK.
Sikorski found himself at odds with Stalin, who had designs on annexing Poland, and in 1943 he accused the Russians of the murders of 4,000 Polish officers in an atrocity at Katyn3.
Russian sabotage is one of a number of theories surrounding Sikorski's death on 4 July, 1943. Returning from an inspection of Polish troops in the Middle East, Sikorski was a passenger on a Consolidated B-24C Liberator which took off for London after a stopover in Gibraltar. The plane crashed into the sea, shortly after take-off, for no obvious reason, killing 12 of the 13 on board. Sikorski may well have been betrayed by Kim Philby, the double-agent who was head of British counter-intelligence in the area at that time.
Ramón Magsaysay, The Philippines
The third president of the Philippines, Ramón Magsaysay4 was elected to office in 1953, and is widely regarded as a man of integrity and a champion of the people. A former guerilla leader during the Japanese occupation, he was an ally of the United States, and was one of the founders of the anti-communist SEATO5 alliance in 1954.
It was during a re-election campaign on 17 March, 1957 that Magsaysay boarded his presidential Douglas C-47 for Manila, having given a speech in Cebu City. Later that day, the plane's wreckage was discovered on Mt Manunggal in Cebu. One survived, a journalist, but 24 lost their lives. The cause is not clear, but the crash is believed to have been accidental.
Barthélemy Boganda, Central African Republic
Popular Nationalist leader in French Equatorial Africa, Barthélemy Boganda6 worked to unite Black Africa in the closing years of French colonial rule in the 1950s. From 1958, he served as Prime Minister of the newly-independent Central African Republic, until his suspicious death while on an internal flight between Berberati and the capital Bangui on 29 March, 1959. The Nord 2501 Noratlas aircraft crashed in the jungle, with some reports claiming it exploded in mid-flight, and suspicion pointing towards it being shot down. All nine on board were killed.
Dag Hammarskjöld, United Nations
Son of a Swedish Prime Minister7, Dag Hammarskjöld8 was an economist who represented Sweden in the United Nations, and in 1953 was elected UN Secretary General. During his tenure, he led diplomatic efforts in the Korean War, the Suez Crisis and the Congolese Civil War, and he commissioned the first UN peace-keeping force.
It was on 17 September, 1961 that Hammarskjöld took a flight from Léopoldville9 on a Douglas DC-6B to negotiate a ceasefire between UN and Congolese forces with the president of the Katanga Province. The plane crashed overnight into jungle on the approach to Ndola airport, Northern Rhodesia10, killing all 16 on board. The official investigation cites navigational errors causing too low an approach, but conspiracy theories also exist, including one that the plane was bombed by Western intelligence agents. Hammarskjöld was posthumously awarded the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize.
Abdul Salam Arif, Iraq
Civil wars in Iraq are nothing new. Arabist Abdul Salam Arif rose to power in a bloodless military coup in 1963, overthrowing the Baathist regime. His time in power is remembered for his policy of working towards economic union with Nasser's Egypt, but this ultimately proved to be fruitless. On 13 April, 1966, Arif was killed in a mysterious helicopter crash on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab river in Southern Iraq, leaving his brother Abdul Rahman Arif in charge.
René Barrientos, Bolivia
Bolivian President René Barrientos11 famously once said that he wanted to see Communist revolutionary Che Guevara's head on a spike. Rising to power in a military coup in 1964, he subsequently engineered an election victory in 1966. Pro-US and anti-communist, he successfully quelled a Guevara-led uprising in the south of the country, and executed Guevara in 1967.
He hadn't defeated all the guerillas, however. A series of damaging incidents caused the peasantry to turn against him, and Barrientos decided to tour villages in an attempt to shore up his once-popular support. After a whistle-stop visit to the Andean village of Arque on 27 April, 1969, his helicopter took off for neighbouring Tacopaya, but reportedly struck telephone cables before crashing, killing Barrientos and two others on board.
Joël Rakotomalala, Madagascar
By all accounts, Madagascar has suffered more than most in the frequency of fatal air accidents involving both politicians and senior military figures12. In 2005, President Marc Ravalomanana survived a helicopter crash at Ankazomiriotra, and it was reportedly a similar incident which claimed the life of Prime Minister Colonel Joël Rakotomalala on 30 July, 1976, just six months into his term of office. Rakotomalala's Aerospatiale SA316B Allouette III helicopter crashed, also at Ankazomiriotra, killing all on board. There is no evidence of foul play, although the political situation at the time was pretty unstable, following the assassination of a previous Prime Minister and the subsequent burning down of the Prime Minister's palace, supposedly to destroy documents relating to the crime.
Dzemal Bijedic, Yugoslavia
On 18 January, 1977, a Yugoslav Government Learjet 25B crashed into Inac Mountain near Sarajevo, killing President Tito's Prime Minister Dzemal Bijedic13, his wife and six others. A hard-line Communist, Bijedic was a Bosnian Muslim, and worked hard to establish Bosnia as an independent nation after he rose to power in 1971. Official reports cited pilot errors on the approach to Sarajevo airport, but conspiracy theorists have not surprisingly pointed the finger of suspicion at Serbian unitarists.
Francisco Sá Carneiro, Portugal
Prime Minister of Portugal for only 11 months, Francisco Sá Carneiro14 climbed into a Cessna 421 light aircraft on the night of 4 December, 1980, flying from Lisbon to attend a presidential election rally in Oporto. With him were his Defence Minister, Amaro da Costa, their two wives and three others. Shortly after take-off, the plane crashed into a building in the Carnarate district of Lisbon, killing all on board. Eyewitnesses claimed that pieces were seen to fall from the aircraft before it crashed. The official verdict was one of accidental death; however, one theory which has been gaining considerable momentum suggests a cover-up of gigantic proportions, involving assassination, arms-for-hostages deals, and a rigged US presidential election.
To cut a long story short, in 1979, there was revolution in Iran. The US-backed Shah had fled the country, and the anti-American backlash under the new leader Ayatollah Khomeini saw fanatical crowds storm the US embassy in the capital, Teheran. 52 Americans were taken hostage on 4 November, 1979, and held for 444 days. The US spectacularly failed to snatch them back in a military helicopter operation15, before concentrating on more conventional diplomatic efforts, led by Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
So, where does Sá Carneiro come into all this? Well, the theory goes that Defence Minister da Costa had apparently uncovered information that senior Portuguese Army officers had been conveying illicit US arms to Iran - all part of a bizarre scheme hatched by US Republicans to damage Carter's re-election campaign. Reportedly a secret deal was struck between vice-president elect George HW Bush and the Iranian leadership to delay the release of the hostages, as their release during the presidential campaign would only improve Carter's prospects. Da Costa tried to stop the arms shipments and paid with his life when his plane was bombed. Sá Carneiro was an innocent fellow traveller.
Two days after new Republican president Ronald Reagan's inauguration, all the hostages were indeed released.
Jaime Roldós, Ecuador
Following many years of direct military rule in the 1960s and 1970s, Ecuador eventually restored democracy and elected the lawyer Jaime Roldós16 as president in 1979. Roldós founded a democratic political party and engaged in a series of reforms, before he lost his life two years later, on 24 May, 1981. Flying from Quito to Macara, near the Peruvian border, his Beechcraft Super King Air 200 crashed into a mountainside, killing all nine on board. Circumstances are not clear, and somewhat suspicious. Some reports describe a mid-air collision with a de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter 300 aircraft, with 16 further casualties.
Many Ecuadorians saw the incident as a CIA assassination. Roldós had some enemies in high places, after he had stood up to the oil companies who were seeking to exploit his country's natural resources. He had proposed radical new trade laws, and was threatening to expel the oil corporates if their plans did not directly benefit Ecuador's people. Following Roldós's death, his successor Osvaldo Hurtado was not so obdurate; indeed, he substantially increased oil drilling in the region, by Texaco among others.
Omar Torrijos, Panama
Three months after the death of Jaime Roldós, the Panamanian dictator General Omar Torrijos17 was killed in a similarly suspicious incident. On 2 August, 1981, the General's Panamanian Air Force Twin Otter 300 was ferrying him on a routine flight between Penonome and Coclecito, but as it approached its destination it exploded and crashed into Mount Marta, killing all seven occupants.
Torrijos had risen to power in a military coup in 1968. In 1977 he negotiated the treaty with Jimmy Carter which would see Panamanians gain control of the Panama Canal in 1999, it having been under US control since 1903. He was also in the process of negotiating a new sea-level canal with the Japanese, allegedly the motive for a CIA assassination. One US author has claimed that on boarding the plane, Torrijos was handed a tape recorder which contained a bomb.
Torrijos was replaced by General Manuel Noriega - another thorn in the side of the Americans for his drug trafficking and racketeering activities, until George HW Bush's regime invaded Panama City in 1989, before capturing, trying, convicting and jailing him in the US.
Martin Torrijos, son of Omar, was elected President of Panama in 2004.
Samora Machel, Mozambique
Former Marxist guerilla leader Samora Machel18 rose to power in 1975 when he led Mozambique to independence from Portuguese rule. His support for the African National Congress's struggle under the Apartheid Regime in South Africa led to frequent clashes with his country's southern neighbour. A peace treaty was signed in 1984, but cross-border tensions continued to rise.
Mystery surrounds the circumstances of the plane crash which ended Machel's life on 19 October, 1986. Returning from an African leaders' congress in Zambia, the Tupelov 134 carrying Machel and 43 others was approaching Maputo airport in stormy conditions. Locking onto a navigational beacon, the pilot descended and turned as directed, but the aircraft subsequently crashed into the ground and burst into flames, reportedly sliding across the South African border in the process. Machel was among 34 occupants who did not survive. One theory for the navigational error was that the plane had locked on to a pirate radio beacon broadcasting on the same frequency as Maputo. South Africa denied any involvement at the time, however in 2006 a fresh investigation was launched by the South African authorities.
Machel's widow, Graca, married Nelson Mandela in 1998.
Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan
The USA has always sought allies and bases in the Middle East, and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq19 of Pakistan was very accommodating, at a time when the Americans were backing the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, as they fought against the Soviet invasion. Ever since he overthrew Prime Minister Bhutto in a military coup in 1977, Zia had courted the Americans, as he sought to build a military advantage in the region.
On 17 August, 1988, Zia with his military top brass attended a demonstration of an American battle tank in the Pakistani desert. Flying from Islamabad to Bahawalpur in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, Zia then flew to the test site by helicopter. Ten minutes after taking off for the return trip to Islamabad, something happened on the Hercules which caused it to nose-dive into the ground, killing all 30 on board. The dead also included Arnold Raphel, the US ambassador to Pakistan, a fact which makes US involvement in the incident less likely. There is no shortage of others who have been accused, however, with Russia, India, Iran, Israel, and various anti-Zia elements within Pakistan all candidates. The most bizarre theory, though is that VX poison gas was hidden within a crate of mangoes loaded on to the plane at Bahawalpur.
Juvénal Habyarimana, Rwanda, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, Burundi
When French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac presented Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana20 with the gift of a Dassault Falcon 50 private jet in 1979, little was he to know that its shooting down would spark a civil war and genocide which would leave 800,000 dead and displace one million more. The event also seriously tarnished the reputation of the United Nations, who were accused of turning a blind eye to the whole affair, even to the extent of withdrawing peacekeeping forces following the incident, and so allowing the massacres to take place unchecked.
Tensions between the ethnic Hutu and Tutsi peoples in the region were already at breaking point, as they had been since the Hutus seized power following independence from Belgium in the 1960s. On 6 April, 1994, Habyarimana was returning to Rwanda with the Hutu president of neigbouring Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira21, following peace talks in Tanzania. On the final approach to Kigali airport, the aircraft was shot down by two missiles, killing all 12 on board. Bizarrely, the plane crash-landed on Habyarimana's own estate. This incident was the final straw, as machete-wielding Hutu militias proceeded to roam the Rwandan countryside, indiscriminately slaughtering both Tutsis and moderate Hutus in an apocalyptic bloodbath.
Kofi Annan's official UN report into the crash in 1998 implied that it was accidental. In addition, the black box22 recovered from the crash site had mysteriously disappeared, eventually turning up in a New York filing cabinet ten years later. Forgoing the diplomatic niceties for once, Annan described the situation as a 'first-class foul-up'.
A recent French investigation placed responsibility for the assassination squarely at the door of the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) guerilla organisation, led at the time by one Paul Kagame, who subsequently became president of Rwanda in 2000. This one could run and run.
Boris Trajkovski, Macedonia
Under the presidency of Boris Trajkovski23, the Republic of Macedonia had taken giant steps towards gaining membership of the European Union. On 26 February, 2004, the former Yugoslav republic had just despatched its Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski to Dublin to formally present their application, when news broke of the President's sudden death. Flying from Skopje to an economic conference in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Trajkovski's Beechcraft Super King Air 200 crashed into mountains on the approach to Mostar airport, killing all nine on board. The weather was poor, and later investigations showed that pilot error was to blame.
Macedonia was subsequently granted EU candidate member status in December, 2005, but obstacles remain over negotiating full member status, not least an ongoing dispute with Greece over the name of the territory.
John Garang, Sudan
Former rebel leader Dr John Garang24 rose to prominence fighting for the independence of the non-Islamic southern provinces of Sudan. His Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) campaigned against the introduction of Islamic Shariah law, and overthrew President Gaafar Nimeiry in 1985. The bloody civil war which raged for 21 years is estimated to have claimed 1.5 million lives and displaced millions more, in a nation suffering some of the worst droughts and famines of recent years.
Peace eventually came in 2005, when Garang was sworn in as national Vice President, and President of a South Sudanese Government, but only three weeks later he was to lose his life. After holding talks in Uganda with its President Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan President's Mi-172 helicopter returning Garang and 13 others to Sudan on 30 July, 2005 crashed into mountains near New Cush, Sudan, killing all on board. Investigators have blamed pilot error, in particular, travelling at too low an altitude in poor weather.