BA149 - the Major version

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The Independent Online
THE Prime Minister has absolved the Government of responsibility for allowing a British Airways jet to land in Kuwait after the invasion by Iraq and has refused to set up an inquiry. Mr Major denies that any British military personnel were on the flight.

But a book on the Special Air Service published this month contradicts his statement and confirms previous reports in the Independent on Sunday that a group of soldiers was on BA149 when it landed in Kuwait on the morning of 2 August 1990.

Inside the SAS says that a group of fewer than 10 SAS men went to Kuwait on the orders of the British government. Alex Taylor, one of the authors, said: 'To avoid attracting attention, the soldiers flew out on British Airways flight 149. They were sent out as bodyguards for the Emir of Kuwait. To cover both the Government and the Emir, the SAS soldiers could have been considered as 'temporary personal employees' of the Emir or on temporary secondment, allowing Mr Major to say that there were no military personnel on the plane.'

In a letter to John Prescott, the shadow transport spokesman, Mr Major has written: 'It was not until 3am (GMT) that we had clear evidence of a full-scale Iraqi invasion of Kuwait' while the plane had landed at 1.13am (GMT).

'It was clear immediately before the invasion that Iraq was massing troops on its border with Kuwait but the Government had no firm evidence that Saddam Hussein would invade, still less occupy.

'Our embassy in Kuwait passed this assessment to the local BA station on the afternoon of 1 August 1990.'

The letter, which is the most comprehensive account of the affair given by the Government so far and which supports British Airways' version of events, was immediately criticised by Mr Prescott: 'There are a lot of weasel words in the letter. Why does he say 'clear' evidence and 'full- scale' invasion? We have to ask whether the Government allowed that plane to land in Kuwait out of sheer incompetence or because they wanted some of the people on board to reach Kuwait as they had sent them in.'

The flight undoubtedly landed after the invasion began. Iraqis entered Kuwait not later than 11pm GMT on 1 August, and some reports say it was earlier. The CIA is reported to have warned the White House at about 9pm GMT.

More than 300 passengers and crew were captured and held for up to 19 weeks as part of Saddam's 'human shield'. British Airways is being sued in Britain, France and the United States, and American lawyers acting for passengers are considering whether to call Mr Major as a witness in court proceedings.

Leon van Gelderen, the US lawyer acting for passengers in a class action for negligence, said: 'The letter implies that nothing happened before BA149 landed. Yet the Kuwaiti ambassador in London had been told by his colleagues that the invasion was under way and US intelligence sources have confirmed this.'