The case will revive arguments about how much the British government knew about the invasion and when and why the flight was allowed to land after Iraqi forces had crossed into Kuwait. Questions will also be asked about whether the flight was used by the Government to get intelligence agents into the country, even at the risk of exposing the passengers to the conflict.
A class action suit filed on Friday in San Diego, California, alleges that BA 'knew or should have known of the hostile invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi armed forces, and the resultant eminent danger to the lives and safety of plaintiffs'. It alleges wilful misconduct and negligence.
A writ has been served on BA by lawyers acting for seven plaintiffs in Britain, and others are expected to join it. A group of French citizens has also begun legal proceedings.
BA flight 149, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, via Kuwait, arrived at Kuwait airport hours after Iraqi forces first crossed the border into the Gulf emirate. It never took off again. Many of the passengers and crew were kept in captivity for months.
BA staff are understood to have received compensation packages, but passengers have been offered compensation only for lost or damaged baggage, lawyers say. The airline says, however, that it has given ex gratia payments to many passengers.
The cases are embarrassing not only for BA, which has always maintained that it and all its staff acted correctly, but also for the Government. Explanations offered by ministers as to when the flight landed were contradictory. Margaret Thatcher said in Parliament that it had arrived before the invasion. This is not borne out by published accounts of the war or by the recollections of those in Kuwait.
The aircraft left two hours late for Kuwait, and passengers were told that the air- conditioning was not working. But lawyers say that passengers overheard an argument among crew over whether the plane should take off at all, in view of the situation in Kuwait.
Lawyers acting for passengers in the San Diego class action will ask the State Department to disclose cables between the US embassy and Washington on the night of the invasion which they hope will prove that the US authorities were aware of what was going on. Some passengers have claimed that important passengers had to be got into Kuwait before the emirate was closed off from the world, and there has been speculation that some may have had intelligence ties.
A BA spokesman said yesterday: 'Nobody on board had any reason to know when the plane landed that the Iraq army had moved into Kuwait.' He said the captain had radioed Kuwait air traffic control a few minutes before arrival and had been told nothing was amiss. BA will contest the actions.
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