Government missed chance prevent 1990 Kuwait hostage crisis, new dossier reveals

Passengers of Flight 149 were taken hostage for five months and used as human shields by Iraqi forces

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic editor
Wednesday 24 November 2021 08:49
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British Airways will consider cutting Heathrow flights if proposed increases in charges are implemented, the boss of the airline’s parent company has claimed (Steve Parsons/PA)
British Airways will consider cutting Heathrow flights if proposed increases in charges are implemented, the boss of the airline’s parent company has claimed (Steve Parsons/PA)

The government is facing fierce criticism and the prospect of legal action after admitting that it failed to pass on crucial information which may have prevented hundreds of British citizens being taken hostage by Saddam Hussein.

Thirty-one years after Flight 149, with 367 passengers on board, was seized by Iraqi forces in Kuwait,  secret official documents have revealed that an urgent message from the British ambassador that the country had been invaded was not passed on to British Airways. The warning would have given airline the opportunity to divert the plane.

The flight continued to Kuwait City and captivity by the Iraqis. The passengers were detained for up to five months and used as human shields. Some of them were mistreated, sexually abused and kept in dire conditions with little food. Many said they witnessed atrocities being committed by Iraqi forces. Some were used in media propaganda exercises by the Baghdad regime with one image, that of Saddam with a frightened young British boy,  gaining widespread international coverage.

Files just  released show that the warning to the Foreign Office came from Sir Michael Weston, the then British ambassador to Kuwait. The message was passed on to Downing Street, the Ministry of Defence and MI6, but not to British Airways despite the government knowing about the flight.

The government subsequently insisted to the passengers, MPs and the media that all relevant material about the affair had been made public.

Liz Truss said in a statement to the Commons on Tuesday: “the call made by HMA Kuwait has never been publicly disclosed or acknowledged until today. These files show that the existence of the call was not revealed to Parliament and the public. This failure was unacceptable. As the current Secretary of State, I apologise to the House for this, and I express my deepest sympathy to those who were detained and mistreated."

Despite the apology, the government insisted that it was only the Iraqi regime which was culpable for what happened to the passengers.

The foreign secretary added “the government has always condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the suffering that followed and mistreatment of those abroad BA149. The responsibility for these events and the mistreatment of those passengers and crew lies entirely with the government of Iraq at the time.”

Senior Whitehall officials acknowledged privately, however, that they expected passengers, many of whom suffered PTSD from their experience, and their families may consider taking legal action.

Sixty-one French nationals on board the flight received compensation of around £50,000 each from BA and there has been undisclosed payouts made to American passengers.  A case brought by the British hostages against was thrown out on a technicality by the House of Lords.

However, the focus of any future litigation is expected to be against the government over its failure on the warning. 

British Airways said: “Our hearts go out to all those caught up in this shocking act of war just over 30 years ago, and who had to endure a truly horrendous experience. These records confirm British Airways was not warned about the invasion."

BA149 took off from London at 18:04 on 1 August 1990. At midnight, while it was still en-route, Sir Michael told the resident clerk at the Foreign Office – the officer who dealt with emergencies—that an Iraqi incursion was taking place.

The disclosure about the ambassador’s warning came from documents released by the Foreign Office. Files on the flight held by the Ministry of Defence and, it is believed, the Department of Transport, are yet to be made public.

There had been persistent and detailed reports that BA 149 was deliberately allowed to continue to Kuwait City, even while other flights were being diverted, because Special Forces were on board on a mission.

The flight had taken off late, it has been claimed, to allow soldiers on a secret mission to get on board. A BBC documentary in 2007 included an interview with a former SAS trooper who said he and his team had been on board Flight149 on an intelligence gathering mission in Kuwait.

Successive governments have denied this. Ms Truss referred to a statement by ministers in 2007 that "the government at the time did not attempt in any way to exploit the flight by any means whatever”.

In 1992, in answer to questions raised by deputy Labour leader John Prescott, prime minister John Major said: “I can confirm that there were no British military personnel on board the flight.” Addressing the issue of the flight being allowed to continue to Kuwait City,  Mr Major stated: “I am satisfied that there was no negligence or oversight on the part of the government. Accordingly, I do not intend to establish an inquiry into the circumstances regarding this incident.”

One of the passengers, who was detained by the Iraqis for four and half months, and says he was threatened at gunpoint, declared that he refused to accept the government apology and was also convinced that a cover-up continues.

Barry Manners, then 24, had been on the plane with his partner when he, said, a group of men came on board late in incongruous looking sports clothing. They were, he believed, soldiers.

Mr Manners, a businessman from Kent, said: “It’s a lie. I’m gobsmacked they are still saying this. The evidence must be so refutable. If the government was using British Airways as de facto military transport, come clean and admit it.

“I live in the real world, I’m not a snowflake – if they pulled us into a room and said: ‘Terribly sorry, we had to do it, have a year off paying income tax and here’s a gold card for British Airways, keep your gob shut’, I would say ‘fair enough’.  when people lie to me, then I get upset. So, no, I don’t accept the apology. It’s a fudge."

Speaking about the group who boarded the flight late, Mr Manners continued: "Who on earth were they, then? Members of a rugby team?

“These were serious guys, you only had to look at them. I’m absolutely gobsmacked. I know what I saw going on with that plane. I know they were soldiers."

“I believe in democracy and rule of law. But it’s confirmed what so many people have said about this Government, and perhaps all governments, that they lie. This seems to me like it’s being presented as an unfortunate cock-up."

Clive Earthy, the BA cabin services director on the flight, had previously stated that he saw  a British man in military uniform greeting him at the plane’s door on arrival in Kuwait. The soldier said he had come to meet 10 men on the flight who had boarded at Heathrow. They were brought to the front, disembarked and were never seen again.

Mr Earthy said on Tuesday: “All the minister is saying is that they are sorry that they did cock up. All they are saying is that they did know the flight was going into a warzone and that they had time to divert the plane.Their apology does not go far enough to acknowledge what actually happened.’

Anthony Paice, who was attached to the British embassy in Kuwait City at the time,  and was in charge, he told the BBC,  of “responsibility for political intelligence.”

Mr Paice claimed a mission had been planned, but both he and the Ambassador had been kept in the dark. "I am convinced that the military intelligence exploitation of British Airways flight 149 did take place, despite repeated official denials. It was a hastily prepared attempt to put intelligence boots on the ground run by the military and special forces”, he told the BBC.

Stephen Davis, author of a  book, Operation Trojan Horse, said he has interviewed members of the military team,  as well as those involved in planning the mission.  He believes the mission involved deploying a team of Special Forces surveillance operatives to feedback intelligence. He has found, he said,  the air fares of the men were paid by a military account.

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