A warning that Iraqi forces had entered Kuwait was not passed on to British Airways even though it had a flight heading to the Gulf state, the Foreign Office has disclosed.
Flight BA149 with 367 passengers on board landed in Kuwait in the early hours of August 2 1990, and the passengers and crew were detained by the invading Iraqi forces and held hostage for up to five months.
In a Commons written ministerial statement, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said files being released to the National Archives show that British ambassador Sir Michael Weston warned the Foreign Office around midnight that an Iraqi incursion was under way as the flight was en route.
‘The information was passed by the resident clerk to the head of the FCO’s Middle East Department and also to No 10, the Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office and the Secret Intelligence Service, but not to British Airways,’ Ms Truss said.
‘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.
New files released today show a warning that Iraqi forces had entered Kuwait was not passed on to British Airways even though its flight BA149 was already enroute to the Gulf state. Pictured: An media appeal issued at the time directing concerns loved ones to information line
How British Airways crew and passengers were taken hostage
May 1990: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein described oil overproduction by Kuwait as economic warfare against Iraq.
July 1990: Iraq accuses Kuwait of stealing oil from the Rumaila, an Iraqi oil field and threatens military action in response. On July 22, Iraq begins sending troops to the Kuwaiti border.
August 1, 1990: Flight BA149 departs Heathrow at 6pm GMT after being delayed for several hours. The flight was not cancelled despite media reports of the worsening political situation.
Shortly after the flight departed, the crew onboard BA149 communicated with other flights that had left Kuwait and were told the situation was normal.
That same day, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait.
August 2, 1990: BA149 landed shortly after 1am GMT which was 4am local time.
The passengers disembarked for what should have been an hour wait while the plane refuelled.
At the point of its landing, all other scheduled flights by other airlines had been cancelled or diverted for several hours already at this point.
At 4.30am GMT, both the crew and passengers who had been on board Flight 149 were escorted from the terminal by the Iraqi army and transported by bus to the airport’s onsite hotel.
August 3, 1990: it was reported that all of the 367 passengers and 18 crewmembers from BA 149 were safe and well.
Different groups of detainees were released at various stages, often dependent upon their nationality, but also including criteria such as ill health and the body of one individual who had died during captivity.
While some passengers were detained only for a few weeks, others were detained for up to five months, often in poor conditions.
December 1990: The last of the remaining hostages were released by Iraq
‘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.’
There has long been speculation that the flight was allowed to continue to Kuwait, even though other flights were being diverted, because it was being used to carry a group of Special Forces into the country.
But, in her statement, Ms Truss said the files were consistent with 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’.
The hostages were dispersed around Kuwait and Iraq, where they were used by Saddam Hussein as ‘human shields’ in an attempt to deter attacks by Western forces to liberate Kuwait.
Some were subjected to abuse by the Iraqi troops and many were traumatised by the experience.
They were eventually allowed to return to the UK after an intervention by former prime minister Sir Edward Heath who went to see Saddam in Baghdad to appeal for their release, with the last hostages freed in December 1990.
In her statement, Ms Truss said the files show that, when Sir Michael called the resident clerk at the Foreign Office, it was unclear whether the Iraqi move across the border was ‘a limited or larger incursion’.
‘At that point, the evidence in the files suggests that it was not possible to say with certainty what was happening,’ she said.
‘Similarly, the resident clerk in the FCO would have had no knowledge of the timing of flights into Kuwait.
‘At the time there appeared to have been no formal arrangements by which information about such events could be passed from the FCO to airlines or the Department of Transport.
‘A procedure to deal with situations like this now exists involving Government and the airline industry.’
BA149 passenger Barry Manners, who was kept hostage by Iraqi soldiers for four-and-a-half months, said he did not accept the Government’s apology.
He 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’.
‘But when people lie to me, then I get upset. So, no, I don’t accept the apology. It’s a fudge.’
The passengers and crew onboard BA’s flight 149 were taken hostage once the plane landed at Kuwait International airport and the plane itself was subsequently destroyed (pictured)
BA149 passenger Barry Manners, who was kept hostage by Iraqi soldiers for four-and-a-half months, said he did not accept the Government’s apology
Mr Manners, a 54-year-old retired business and beach cleaner in Botany Bay, Kent, added: ‘I am a paid-up member of the Conservative Party … I believe in democracy and rule of law.
‘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.’
He also dismissed Ms Truss’s statement denying the handful of people who boarded the doomed flight late were special forces.
He said: ‘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.’
A British Airways spokesman 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.’