The strange flight of BA 149: Why did no one prevent a British Airways flight into Kuwait after the invasion began? Andrew Marshall on a riddle that won't go away

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The Independent Online
TWO YEARS after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the uncertainties, hatreds and conflicts that it generated are still being unravelled. One group of people who were unwitting victims of the Iraqi action are now taking their case to the courts. The passengers of Flight BA 149 arrived in Kuwait after the Iraqi military, and some of them allege negligence by British Airways.

Their long journey, which was to take some right across the Middle East, began when the BA flight left Heathrow on the evening of 1 August 1990. It had been delayed for two hours, apparently by an engineering problem. Many passengers assumed it was because of trouble in Kuwait. Iraqi forces had been reported massing on the border for some time; Baghdad's claim on Kuwait was well known. Some passengers say they heard the crew arguing about whether to proceed or not. Speculation was growing that Baghdad was about to move.

It is certain that the aircraft landed after the invasion had begun. The Iraqis entered Kuwait not later than midnight British Summer Time, 2am local time; some reports say it was earlier. The CIA is said to have warned the White House at midnight Kuwait time, 10pm in Britain, of the Iraqi movements, probably from satellite intelligence. It takes time to get a large, modern war machine moving.

The plane touched down, according to British Airways, at 4.13am. BA says the pilot called ahead to check on the situation, but Kuwaiti air traffic control gave no warning as the flight landed. Witnesses say all seemed normal at the airport. The 20 or 30 heading for Kuwait went through immigration, but found their luggage was stuck on the plane. Most passengers were going on to Madras or Kuala Lumpur.

It was not immediately evident, even then, what had happened. The Iraqis took some time to reach Kuwait City. Victor Mallet, then the Financial Times Middle East correspondent, drove into town, where he was confronted by the first evidence of the war. 'At 5.15am my taxi to the Sheraton Hotel in the town centre was stopped by Iraqi soldiers who machine-gunned the car in front to bring it to a halt . . . The takeover of the capital had begun.'

Back at the airport, the flight was about to leave on the second stage of its journey. The new pilot, Captain Peter Clark, was preparing to take off. At about 4.40am, he was told the airport would be closed for two hours. Within minutes, Iraqi jets appeared over a secondary runway and strafed and bombed it. The passengers were evacuated.

Then the Iraqi military took over. Along with 77 BA staff, the 337 passengers were prevented from leaving. Thirty-six passengers, all but two of them British, were transferred to Baghdad, and some were used as human shields. A BA stewardess was raped by Iraqi soldiers.

What happened to the passengers on Flight BA 149 was one of many human tragedies during a tragic war, when many innocent people were killed, wounded or left in distress on both sides. The difference is that these people can sue, and that is what they are doing. French, British and American passengers have taken legal action. It may cost BA money; it will certainly embarrass a lot of people, including ministers.

The point at issue is what was known, when and by whom: could the passengers' detention have been prevented? It is not disputed that the invasion took many people by surprise. Later that morning, diplomats across the Middle East were woken up. One refused to believe anything had happened, and it took three phone calls to get him into the office. Nobody had expected the Iraqis to move so quickly. A Cabinet Office report the previous day is said to have concluded no invasion was planned.

But was there time, between the invasion and the aircraft's landing, to alert the crew? There was much dispute in Parliament about when, exactly, the plane landed and the invasion began; was this confusion or an attempt to conceal?

During the emergency debate on the Gulf crisis in the House of Commons, Margaret Thatcher said: 'The British Airways flight landed, its passengers disembarked and the crew handed over to a successor crew and went to their hotels. All that took place before the invasion: the invasion was later.'

But Cecil Parkinson, then the Secretary of State for Transport, gave a different impression in a letter to John Prescott, Labour transport spokesman. 'It was apparent to everyone that Iraq was massing troops on the border with Kuwait, but the very widespread assumption was that this was to exercise pressure on Kuwait. We certainly had no prior knowledge or expectation the invasion would take place, let alone the exact time and precise nature of it. It is not always clear exactly what is happening in the early stages of hostilities. However, on the information presently available, we believe that the invasion took place about the time when British Airways flight BA 149 landed at Kuwait. We were not therefore able to warn British Airways of the invasion before the aircraft landed.'

This is also inconsistent with figures given by BA and the Foreign Office, which said the flight landed more than two hours after the Iraqi invasion.

The Independent on Sunday revealed two years ago that BA was furious about the incident. Lord King, the airline's chairman, angrily criticised the Foreign Office and the security services for failing to issue a warning. If Kuwait had been designated a war zone, the flight could have proceeded on to a safer airport. It was heading on to Kuala Lumpur in any case.

None of this necessarily means anybody who was in a position to stop the flight knew what had happened. News of the invasion travelled more slowly than the Iraqis themselves. Though there had been warnings for some time that Iraq's intentions towards Kuwait were matched by capabilities, nobody knew for sure when Baghdad would act, or how far it would go. Were British and American intelligence caught on the hop by the invasion, then?

Or did they use the BA flight to get people into Kuwait? British intelligence had notably more success in operating in Kuwait during the war than did their American counterparts: did they succeed in infiltrating agents in at the last moment? Some of the people caught on the last flight believed that to be the case.

Paul Merlet, an anaesthetist from Nantes, is leading the campaign for the French litigants. He told the European that 'according to rumours we heard at the French embassy in Baghdad, they landed because the Emir of Kuwait's brother was on board'. Other passengers have suggested that security experts may have been on board. This does not imply BA was informed, only that vital information may have been withheld. These are only some of the many rumours surrounding the flight. There are many theories and little evidence.

How much did the Kuwaitis themselves know? According to some reports, the Emir of Kuwait was tipped off an hour before the invasion. Crown Prince Saad is said to have telephoned the US embassy in Kuwait at 4am local time, before the flight landed, to request assistance to fight the invasion. Another story says that at around 4.30, the Emir and his family were evacuated from the US embassy in a US helicopter. Dilip Hiro, in his book on the war, says that 'by about 21.00 EST (4am Kuwait time) all the important officials in Washington knew that Iraq had crossed into Kuwait'. Mrs Thatcher was in the US at the time: was she informed?

But it seems possible that the Kuwaitis did not tell the airport what was going on. Certainly the Kuwaiti royal family did little to help their own people: apart from isolated acts of heroism, most were off to Saudi Arabia like a shot.

It may have been a cock-up. At times of high tension, information can take time to reach the right people. Then again, maybe by the time the world knew, it was too late to stop the flight. This is what those who are suing BA will want to find out.

Lawyers acting for the Saloom family, the latest to sue BA over the Kuwait affair, will try to establish what the US government knew and when. It will be much harder to establish what BA knew, and more difficult still to know what the British Government was up to. Two years have passed, but it will be years before many of the papers relating to what happened are in the public domain.

The Saloom's lawyers are Belli, Belli, Brown, Monzione, Fabro and Zakaria, one of the largest and best-known personal injury firms in the US. They represented relatives of those killed when a Korean airliner was shot down over the Soviet Union. Then, they were stymied by the privileges of the US government.

The BA plane sat on the tarmac almost untouched until the last three days of the occupation, when it was blown up as part of an orgy of destruction that preceded the Iraqi exodus. But the storm that erupted around it has yet to finish.

(Photograph omitted)