Jet passengers held hostage by Iraq sue BA

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PAUL DIEPPE doesn't sleep well these days. He was a passenger on flight BA149 from London to Kuala Lumpur in August 1990, and it's not a flight he will ever forget. The plane landed in Kuwait just minutes before Saddam Hussein's troops poured across the Gulf State's borders.

Professor Dieppe, along with 359 fellow passengers, was held by Iraqi troops as a "human shield" hostage for just over five months. Now he is one of 14 British hostages planning an action in the European court for compensation.

But he is not suing President Hussein. His dispute is with the British justice system.

Last month, 61 French nation-als were awarded a total of pounds 2.5m in compensation after a court ruling that British Airways had failed to ensure the safety of passengers. In the US, the company has made out-of-court settlements with American hostages. The House of Lords, however, has ruled that BA has no obligation to pay compensation to British claimants.

Frank Lefevre, who is acting for the British and preparing the case, says: "We have this ridiculous anomaly that if a French couple are on the same plane as a British couple ... the French can have compensation for what happens and the British can't. We are all European and there is supposed to be some sort of harmony ... surely this anomaly must be obvious to anyone."

Professor Dieppe says he still suffers from nightmares and flashbacks. "I'm getting on with my life but there is no doubt it had a big effect on me. When you hear that other people have been compensated it makes you feel rather sour ... it's very unjust."

A specialist in rheumatology and arthritis at Bristol University, Professor Dieppe was going to a conference in Malaysia when he was taken hostage. Kept for five-and-a-half months, he was unable at first to contact his wife, Elizabeth, and daughters Clare and Victoria. "I was kept in a poison- gas factory and for three months my family didn't know if I was alive or dead. We weren't tortured but they messed about with us mentally - bursting in at night and switching the lights on. That sort of thing. I was lucky that the university kept my job open but after six months away and six months trying to get over it, I was unable to go back to my speciality."

A spokesman for BA said they were examining the French ruling to see if there were further grounds for appeal. "Three cases were brought in the US, one was dismissed. We settled out of court in two cases purely because of the prohibitive cost of action there. Apart from the French, courts in the US, England and Scotland found in BA's favour.

"We have offered [the passengers] an ex gratia payment. But what happened to these people was done by the Iraqi armed forces and we should not be held responsible for that."

During the dispute, the passengers have accused BA of making an unscheduled stop to drop off British commandos and pick up intelligence agents in Kuwait - a charge denied by the Government and the airline.