Hostage scandal of BA149: Michael Jempson on evidence that contradicts the Government over fateful flight

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The Independent Online
NEW evidence casts doubt on statements by John Major and Baroness Thatcher on the fate of the British Airways flight that was trapped in Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion. Documents obtained by the Independent on Sunday show that the flight should have been saved.

The Government has always maintained that news of the invasion came too late to turn back the plane. Its 400 passengers and crew were captured and held hostage by Saddam Hussein.

Mr Major last year absolved the Government of responsibility for BA149 and refused to set up an inquiry. He stuck to the line previously held by Lady Thatcher, who while Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the plane had arrived before the fighting started.

But documents obtained from US intelligence services under the Freedom of Information Act confirm that the invasion started at least three hours before the plane touched down. Further, the documents show, the British government should have had early warning of the attack because Royal Navy ships on patrol in the Persian Gulf were monitoring Iraqi military movements.

John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman, yesterday called on the Prime Minister to allow a select committee to investigate BA149. 'These latest revelations are scandalous. Either the Prime Minister has been lied to, or there has been a deliberate and monstrous cover-up. We have just recently learned of the appalling behaviour of Britain's most prestigious privatised company in the Virgin Atlantic affair. Now it looks like a few more apologies are in order, at least to the passengers and crew.'

British Airways is sticking to its original statement that every effort was made to check on the safety of landing in Kuwait. The airline is being sued for compensation by BA149 passengers in the British, American and French courts. It denies negligence.

The passengers and crew of BA149 were taken hostage after the flight landed in Kuwait on 2 August 1990.

The classified reports say that the US Defense Intelligence Agency was monitoring Iraqi forces when they 'departed their deployment areas on the night of 31 July and early on 1 August (1990) in preparation for their movement into Kuwait'. One DIA signal, on the morning of the invasion, 2 August, begins: 'Iraqi Republican Guard units crossed the border into Kuwait late on 1 August.'

A summary says that 'Iraqi forces crossed into Kuwait at approximately 01.00 Kuwait time (on the 2nd) at multiple points along the border', confirming CIA reports that the invasion was well under way more than three hours before BA149 landed in Kuwait. The intelligence warnings should have left plenty of time for BA149 to be diverted. The confidential signals refer to the four Royal Navy ships patrolling the Gulf at the time. They would have been monitoring Iraqi air and surface military movements in the region, and had

access to intelligence signals.

Earlier investigations by the Independent on Sunday revealed that the flight crew had been anxious not to land in Kuwait, given the tense political situation. There have been suggestions that British military advisers were present in the control tower at Kuwait airport when the plane was cleared to land, and that the plane itself was carrying soldiers.

BA has admitted in documents released to US lawyers, seeking compensation for passengers on the plane, that its local manager in Kuwait City, Laurie O'Toole, first knew of the invasion when he was 'awakened by the sound of tanks and gunfire' at about 4am Kuwait time, 15 minutes before the plane landed at Kuwait airport. At that time, BA149 had not entered Kuwait airspace and could have been re-routed to avoid the city.

'Laurie O'Toole could not have turned the aircraft back,' BA said. 'He was aware of military movement. He tried repeatedly to contact airport staff and the embassy, but could not raise either.'

Other documents show that BA had previously been reassured about the Iraqi threat to Kuwait. The company was told, at a briefing in the British Embassy in Kuwait before the plane left Heathrow airport on the night of 1 August, that there was no change in the positions of Iraqi troops near the Kuwait border.

Mr O'Toole was assured by the First Secretary responsible for aviation security, Tony Paice, and Colonel Bruce Duncan, of the British Military Liaison Team, that 'satellite photographs showed no change in Iraqi troop positions (30 to 40km inside Iraq)'. This conflicts with the new evidence supplied by American military intelligence.

The new evidence strengthens the view of some passengers and BA crew that the Foreign Office should be in the dock with BA. Senior crew members on the flight have reacted angrily to the disclosure that at least one BA manager knew that the invasion was under way before they landed. BA staff have been warned not to talk to the press. 'Nothing surprises me anymore,' said one member of the crew that landed in Kuwait.

'We are even being kept in the dark about the forthcoming court cases, though we have been told that we are likely to be subpoenaed as witnesses.

'Senior managers have had all these Flash Harry courses in man management, but they don't even seem to recognise that we nearly lost our lives in Kuwait,' he said. None the less, he believes that the ultimate responsibility for their plight rests with the intelligence services.

'I believe that the British government will eventually find itself drawn into court, whether it is enjoined directly by my clients or as a party defendant by BA,' says one lawyer.

Actions for compensation against BA are being taken variously under common law, the Warsaw Convention and French contract law.

Last month, BA successfully argued for the dismissal of a compensation claim by two passengers in the district court in San Diego. Judge Judith Keep delivered a verbal ruling rejecting the claims, thus dealing a blow to those seeking compensation under the Warsaw Convention governing air travel, which limits an airline's liability to passengers. The passengers' lawyer, Leon Van Gelderen, said that his clients would continue their claim under a different jurisdiction.

(Photograph omitted)