JUSTICE Richard Goldstone has been invited to join a new United Nations (UN) backed inquiry into the death of UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld who died in 1961 in an air crash on a mission to prevent newly independent Democratic Republic of the Congo spiralling into civil war.

A survivor and several witnesses said the aircraft was shot down, but a UN inquiry into the crash dismissed the claims. Eight months before Hammarskjöld's death, Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba had been assassinated in Katanga.

Hammarskjöld, who served from 1953 until 1961, was widely regarded as the best secretary-general to have led the UN, a statement announcing the inquiry said today.

The members of the commission of jurists to lead the inquiry are Justice Richard Goldstone, Sir Stephen Sedley of the UK (chairman), ambassador Hans Corell of Sweden, and Judge Wilhelmina Thomassen of the Netherlands. "Mr Hammarskjöld died when the Swedish-owned and crewed aircraft he was flying in crashed near Ndola airport in the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), on the night of September 17-18, 1961. All but one of the passengers and crew were killed. Eight months earlier, Patrice Lumumba had been assassinated in Katanga, on the other side of the Rhodesian border, which had illegally declared its secession from the newly independent Congo," the statement by the enabling committee, chaired by Lord Lea of Crondall, said.

The committee said that the air crash immediately raised questions. "Why did the sole survivor say that the plane 'blew up' before it crashed? Why did local residents report seeing a smaller second plane attack a larger one that night? Why was the wreckage not found officially for 15 hours, though only eight miles from the airport?"

According to the committee, the UN commission of inquiry in 1961-62 failed to adequately address these issues. "There is prima facie evidence from a book published in 2011, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by Susan Williams, and from other sources, that there is new information that ought to be evaluated," Lord Lea said.

Nigeria's Chief Emeka Anyaoku, former Commonwealth secretary-general, said that the results of the inquiry would be of great interest to many in the Commonwealth.

Justice Goldstone was the chairman of the UN commission that issued a controversial and damaging report against Israel in 2009. The report blamed both Israel and Palestinian militants for atrocities during Israel's campaign in Gaza. He later withdrew some of the allegations.

He also served as a judge of the Constitutional Court of SA from July 1994 to October 2003. From 1991-94 he served as the chairman of the Commission of Inquiry Regarding Public Violence and Intimidation (the Goldstone c ommission). He was the first chief prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.