Was BA 149 a Trojan horse?: The British government faces questions over whether a passenger flight into occupied Kuwait was planned or was an intelligence failure
Sunday 09 August 1992
Legal cases against British Airways have been brought in France, Britain and the United States alleging that the airline was negligent in allowing Flight BA 149 to land in Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion on 2 August 1990. Though there is no evidence to suggest that BA staff knew what had happened when the plane landed, there is reason to believe that British military officials on the ground were aware, but failed to alert the pilot.
Over 300 passengers and crew suffered for up to 19 weeks as involuntary 'guests' of Saddam Hussein, in Kuwait or in Iraq. Several women crew members spent one terrifying night in a filthy Kuwaiti military base with Iraqi conscripts trying to break in, defended only by Iraqi regulars. Another group of hostages from the plane were given the leg of a giraffe to eat after the Iraqis had machine-gunned animals dying of starvation in Kuwait Zoo.
British military advisers to Kuwait had also been taken hostage. While in captivity and in fear for their lives, they told some of those on board the plane that British military advisers had been present in the control tower at Kuwait airport when BA 149 was given clearance to land. British military personnel were alleged to have taken over the control tower some hours before BA 149 actually arrived.
The Ministry of Defence hostages said they had received 24 hours' warning of the Iraqi invasion and had been issued with new job titles to obscure their true function. They had even packed their kitbags before they were picked up by the Iraqis.
The crew seem to have taken every possible action to determine what was going on in Kuwait and there seems little doubt that had they had the slightest idea that Iraqi troops were present in the emirate, they would not have landed.
On the eve of the flight there was every reason to be nervous, given the deterioration in relations between Iraq and Kuwait. Both cabin crew and flight deck officers insisted that BA check with the Foreign Office. At a subsequent security briefing the crew were told, correctly, that no invasion had taken place, but some crew members remained concerned that BA seemed peculiarly ill-informed about the current political situation.
BA managers said they had contacted the Foreign Office and Kuwait airport and would continue to keep in touch throughout the flight, which was scheduled to leave Heathrow at 16.15 GMT and arrive in Kuwait at 23.10 GMT.
While the 18-year-old Jumbo was being checked prior to departure a fault was discovered in the auxiliary power unit (APU) for the air conditioning equipment. The APU had malfunctioned on previous occasions and would not have been a cause for concern had the plane been destined for cooler climates.
But flight and maintenance crew made the most of the delay by thoroughly checking the aircraft and requesting up-to-date reports from Kuwait. The crew were aware that if the delay were prolonged a relief crew would have to take over because the flight time would exceed their set period of duty. This may have been the subject of the 'heated debate' some passengers refer to. The plane eventually left two hours late.
None of the crew admit to public rows about the security situation. Passengers and crew say that every effort was made to calm the anxieties of those who were concerned about the situation in Kuwait. Several asked whether the plane would still be going to Kuwait and cabin crew did their best to assuage their fears, both then and during the flight.
The crew made at least two further attempts to check the situation on the ground in Kuwait. There was a conversation between the crews of BA 149 and Flight BA 148, a British Airways Tristar that had left Kuwait earlier. Captain Richard Brunyate, the pilot of BA 149, was told that everything had appeared normal.
Before BA 149 landed, the pilot spoke with air traffic control. Again he was told that everything was fine. Only then was the decision made to set down. Captain Peter Clark, who had flown into Kuwait the previous Sunday, said that because he had been aware of the dicey political situation he had kept his eyes peeled and been prepared to take his plane back up into the skies right up to the point of touchdown.
No evidence has yet emerged to prove BA knew of the invasion before the flight landed; nor is there any obvious motive for BA to land its aircraft in a war zone. One theory put forward by angry passengers is that BA was using the flight to rescue its own staff. But none of the BA crews that remained in Kuwait were instructed to board the flight and the incoming crew left immediately for their hotel.
The key to why the British government may have allowed the plane to land probably lies in who was on the plane. Among the passengers was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, travelling first class, with his bodyguard.
BA staff claim that only minutes before the scheduled departure time a group of 12 young men arrived at the airport on a private coach. Apparently their original coach had broken down and another had had to be hired at short notice.
They were 'obviously soldiers - you get used to recognising them', one BA staff member is alleged to have told a colleague. Their documentation indicated a block booking from a single travel agent in Hereford for a flight to Kuwait. Hereford is the base of the Special Air Service; but other units also train there with the SAS, as does British intelligence. BA has denied that SAS men were on the plane, or that the aircraft was used as a Trojan horse. But BA may not have known the identities of those on the plane.
Cabin crew say that these men were among the 30 passengers who disembarked in Kuwait. They got off the plane along with some of the transit passengers, and had departed from the airport for Kuwait City before the incoming crew set off for their hotel, as had the Kuwaiti royal.
During the Gulf war, allied special forces liaised with the Kuwaiti resistance inside the emirate itself, and at least one member of the SAS was decorated for this work. The Kuwaiti resistance was led by members of the Kuwaiti royal family, possibly including the man on BA 149.
There are mixed views among the crew members about who was to blame for their predicament, although everyone agrees that the Foreign Office and the British government bear ultimate responsibility. But much of their contempt is for British embassy officials in Kuwait.
They say embassy staff did little to assist them either to avoid capture or escape from Kuwait in the early days when it was clear that the Iraqis were turning a blind eye to those who left the country by road and across the desert. Embassy officials who were later decorated for their work in Kuwait during the hostage crisis constantly told BA staff to 'keep their heads down'. Expatriates were similarly dismissive of the embassy.
BA has kept tight-lipped about the affair, partly because it is now facing legal action. Although at the time, the chairman, Lord King, was clearly angry about the predicament BA had been placed in, the airline was anxious not to upset the Government because of a pending decision about whether or not they would retain exclusive control of the Far East routes. When BA lost out over this, Lord King came out against the Tory government, but BA staff believe the pressure remains because of Government embarrassment about the intelligence cock-up.
There is reason to believe that Western intelligence agencies, and the Kuwaitis, expected Iraq only to occupy 'disputed territory' to the north of Kuwait City. By launching a helicopter assault on the Dasman Palace across the Gulf of Kuwait as troops crossed the border 100 miles to the north, the Iraqis took everyone by
The British embassy is only 500 metres from the palace. US and Kuwaiti sources admit that the invasion began at least two hours before BA 149 arrived in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti ambassador in London was unable to contact the Foreign Office when he called an emergency number at midnight GMT, an hour before the Jumbo landed.
Staff have been repeatedly warned not to talk to the press, especially since BA made them ex gratia payments last year in recognition of their incarceration. There is some bitterness among crews at the level of compensation. Regardless of rank, those who were held for up to four weeks received one-off payments of pounds 6,000. Those who were there for 10 weeks received pounds 10,000. Those who remained in Kuwait or Iraq for almost five months received pounds 15,000.
All these were treated as goodwill payments, not compensation. Although their wages were being paid to relatives at home, and most were very pleased with the way BA handled their domestic circumstances ('Bloody marvellous,' said one), some of the more senior staff believe that the correct level of compensation should have been based on normal arrangements for remaining out of the country on company business through no fault of their own.
For some this would have amounted to more than pounds 180,000. Most were effectively on duty for much of their time as hostages, with responsibility for passengers and crew.
Investigation is hampered by the fact that some of the documentation relating to the flight has disappeared, including the passenger lists. BA staff say that, apparently, it is normal procedure for such lists to be withdrawn from the company's computer in emergencies - both to protect the identity of the passengers and to make sure that next of kin can be informed. The BA 149 computer list was withdrawn the day after the flight.
Faced with the threat of a series of expensive court actions for alleged negligence, BA now has to decide whether it must shoulder the burden of blame alone or demand that the British government release information to shatter the case brought by the passengers.
Either BA was deliberately kept in ignorance, or there was a monumental intelligence failure that led to the unnecessary humiliation and incarceration of British citizens on the flight. Either way, the Government has questions to answer.
COUNTDOWN TO HOSTAGE CRISIS
All times in GMT. British Summer Time is one hour ahead, Kuwait time is three hours ahead.
14.00 Passengers begin checking in for Flight BA 149 to Kuala Lumpur, via Kuwait and Madras. The 747 Jumbo had 18 first class seats, 70 in club world class and 288 in economy, and BA staff recall that the flight was almost full.
14.30 Crew report for duty. They have heard reports suggesting Iraq has moved into Kuwait and are concerned. A security briefing is held.
15.30 Cabin crew board plane.
16.00 Crew report fault on auxiliary power unit for air- conditioning equipment.
16.15 BA 149 scheduled to leave. Passengers are told there is a problem.
18.15 BA 149 finally takes off.
18.40 The ITN World News is shown to passengers.
20.00 First unconfirmed reports that Iraqi troops have crossed the border.
22.00 CIA in Washington confirms invasion is taking place.
22.13 Pilot of BA 149 talks to pilot of BA 148, a British Airways flight from Kuwait. No problems are reported.
23.10 BA 149 scheduled to arrive in Kuwait.
23.50 Kuwaiti Ambassador in London is told of invasion.
00.00 President George Bush told invasion is taking place. British ambassador in Kuwait phones Foreign Office; no answer.
01.15 BA 149 lands.
01.20 Some passengers disembark; others sleep on the plane.
01.45 Crew board plane for onward flight.
02.00 Kuwait airport closes.
02.15 Victor Mallet, Financial Times Middle East correspondent, meets Iraqi troops on his way into Kuwait City.
02.20 Iraqi planes bomb runway.
03.00 Kuwaiti radio announces that Iraqi troops have crossed the border.
04.30 Passengers and crew bussed to Airport Hotel.
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