The British Secret Intelligence Service may have played a role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Congo, according to remarks said to have been made by MI6’s former head of station in the region.
The late Baroness Park of Monmouth, known as Daphne Park when she was sent as an MI6 officer to the Belgian Congo in 1959, told a fellow peer before she died three years ago that she had been behind the elimination of Lumumba.
His death by firing squad on January 17, 1961, has always been mired in intrigue and claims of Cold War espionage skullduggery by outsiders. He was overthrown after just a few months in office.
Principal blame for his death at the age of 35 has rested with the Belgian Government and the CIA, which was accused of sponsoring a coup against the young socialist politician after he turned to the Soviet Union for arms and financial backing.
Now Lord Lea of Crondall, a former assistant general secretary of the TUC, has reported a conversation he had with Lady Park before she died in March 2010.
Responding to the publication of a new book that questions whether British plots to assassinate Lumumba “ever amounted to anything”, Lord Lea has written a letter to the London Review of Books, saying: “It so happens that I was having tea with Daphne Park a few months before she
died. I mentioned the uproar surrounding Lumumba’s abduction and murder, and recalled the theory that MI6 might have had something to do with it. ‘We did,’ she replied. ‘I organised it.”
The remark was met with astonishment by historians and former officials yesterday who rejected the suggestion that MI6 had been behind the assassination. “It’s known that the Belgians bumped him off,” Rupert Allason, an intelligence historian, said. Another
intelligence historian who wished to remain anonymous cautioned against taking her comment seriously.
A former senior British intelligence official who knew Lady Park said: “It doesn’t sound like the sort of remark Daphne Park would make. She was never indiscreet. Also MI6 never had a licence to kill.”
However, Lord Lea said he could remember the conversation precisely, and that Lady Park was in full command of her faculties when he spoke to her. It had taken place in the Bishop’s Bar tea room in the House of Lords in the autumn of 2009, he said.
“It was a conversation stopper. I was stunned,” Lord Lea said. “I don’t know why she blurted it out. We had known each other for some time, she knew I wouldn’t tell anyone the next day.” He concluded from the conversation that whoever was directly culpable for Lumumba’s death, the British Government was “at the centre of the spider’s web”.
A veteran MI6 officer, Daphne Park achieved extraordinary influence in the region after she was appointed consul and first secretary in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in 1959, one year before Congo won independence after 75 years of Belgian colonial rule.
She made a point of getting acquainted with Lumumba. She said in an interview with The Times several years ago that she had first spotted the young socialist standing in a queue for a visa at the British Consulate and had invited him for coffee.
She came to know him well, but admitted that he was regarded as dangerous. His outreach to Moscow sowed the seeds of his downfall. The coup against him on September 14, 1960, was led by Colonel Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, the army chief of staff, and he was captured and imprisoned.
He was ordered before a firing squad.
Ever since, there have been claims and counter-claims about foreign governments who might have orchestrated the assassination. There were fears at the time that Lumumba’s growing alliance with Moscow, which included a huge shipment of arms and military transport aircraft, might lead to the Soviet Union’s seizure of Congo’s vast mineral resources.
The CIA has always denied involvement in the death, but the Belgian Government formally accepted responsibility in 2002.