Fighters over Kuwait as BA 149 flew in

LAWYERS acting for passengers on the ill-fated British Airways flight that landed in Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion are demanding access to contingency plans drawn up by the airline in the event of hostilities.

Inquiries by the Independent on Sunday have revealed that Kuwaiti fighters were engaging Iraqi forces over Kuwait before the plane, BA 149, arrived and that officials in London knew what was happening while the plane was still in the air.

Either there were no effective contingency plans in place, the lawyers argue, or the plans failed to work. Their demands follow BA's response to investigations into the plight of the passengers and crew who were used as human shields by Saddam Hussein.

The airline claims: 'British Airways did not know and could not have known that BA Flight 149 would be in any danger following its landing in Kuwait . . . We have no reason to believe that any warning could have been given to us before BA 149 landed . . .'

But an hour before the flight landed, Kuwait's ambassador in London, Ghazi al-Rayes, was roused from his bed with news of the invasion. When he finally got through to the Foreign Office several hours later, he learned it had been kept informed throughout the night by the British ambassador in Kuwait, Michael Weston.

In an interview recorded just after the Gulf war ended, the ambassador said Kuwaiti fighter planes had been engaged in action before BA 149 landed. 'They were unable to return to their bases, and eventually flew to Saudi Arabia,' he said. According to Mr Ghazi, air traffic control at Kuwait airport should have been aware that military planes were in the air. '(They) should not really have given clearance to land to this aircraft,' he said.

The ambassador's statements mean that officials in London knew the invasion had begun well before the aircraft landed. So either no contingency plans were in place; or they were, but for some reason crucial information was not relayed to the pilot of BA 149.

The lawyers are exploring claims that British military personnel were in the control tower when it allowed the airliner to land and that the flight was used to get soldiers, possibly SAS men, into Kuwait.

French lawyers acting for 65 passengers, including at least one British subject, are suing BA under French contract law. This requires the airline to prove it could not have avoided putting its passengers in jeopardy.

'The passengers and the French and British public deserve to be told now what contingency plans the airline had, given the tense situation in the Gulf at the time,' said Benoit Benamy, one of the French lawyers.

Mr Benamy also wants to know if the 747 black box and flight-deck voice recorder hold any clues to the circumstances of the landing. BA says the black box, built to withstand a crash, was destroyed when retreating Iraqi forces blew up the plane.

This news will come as a disappointment to the US lawyers Belli, Belli, Monzione, Fabbro and Zakaria, who intend to make similar demands of BA in a class action on behalf of American passengers on the flight.

The airline says that normal emergency procedures covering logistical matters were in place at the time, but no special arrangements were made.

A BA official said the airline liaised closely with various government departments at all times. 'If we get information, we relay it to the authorities, and we would expect the same process in reverse.' BA had checked the situation with the British embassy in Kuwait before the plane took off, but had no further contact with the embassy until after it landed.

BA crew members who made strenuous efforts to clarify the risks of landing in Kuwait continue to express anger that they and their passengers were put at unnecessary risk because intelligence information about the invasion was not made known to them. Some claim that BA was at fault for not having put emergency measures into operation which might have avoided their capture.

One long-serving crew member, who did not wish to be named, claimed that during recent disturbances in Thailand, BA flights were re-routed via Singapore and Kuala Lumpur rather than risk putting down in Bangkok. 'If they had shown the same forethought two years ago, BA 149 would never have landed in Kuwait,' he said.

The Foreign Office has refused to comment about the details of what happened to BA 149, beyond referring to statements nearer the time by Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister; Douglas Hogg, then Foreign Office minister, and the then Secretary of State for Transport, Cecil Parkinson.

The statements appear to contradict each other as well as evidence obtained by the Independent on Sunday investigation and earlier attempts by Channel 4 News to discover when the British government first knew the inavasion was taking place.

The inquiries have led John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman, to demand an investigation into the incident.

(Photograph omitted)

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