UK admits failing to warn Kuwait-bound BA plane about 1990 invasion

Hundreds of passengers were detained for months by Iraq after 'unacceptable' failure to alert airline

The UK has apologised after admitting – 31 years later – that it failed to warn British Airways that Saddam Hussein’s forces had invaded Kuwait as one of its jets was scheduled to land.

Flight BA149 landed in Kuwait in the early hours of August 2, 1990, with 367 passengers on board. Travellers were kept hostage and mistreated for up to five months before eventually being released.

Britain's ambassador to Kuwait, Sir Michael Weston, had told the Foreign Office at about midnight that Iraqi troops had crossed the border. The warning was passed on to the prime minister’s office and intelligence officials but not the airline, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.

"The call made by her majesty's ambassador in 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,” she said on Tuesday.

"This failure was unacceptable. As the current secretary of state, I apologise to the House [of Commons] for this and I express my deepest sympathy to those who were detained and mistreated."

Parliamentary records show that then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher told MPs in September 1990 that all the passengers had left the plane and gone to hotels before the invasion.

"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," she told them.

Once all passengers and crew were taken off the plane, it remained on the runway where at some stage it was destroyed, although it is disputed when and by whom.

There has long been speculation that the flight was allowed to continue to Kuwait for refuelling en route to Malaysia because it was being used to carry a group of special forces into the country.

But Ms Truss said that files sent to the country’s National Archive were consistent with a statement in 2007 that “the government at the time did not attempt in any way to exploit the flight by any means whatever".

Stephen Davis, who wrote a book about the scandal, which took its title from the suspected secret intelligence mission, Operation Trojan Horse, said the hostages were still searching for the truth as the latest statement showed that Thatcher, who died in 2013, had lied.

"It is a shame the government has chosen to repeat their 2007 non-denial denial of the mission with its strange use of the word 'exploit'," he said. "I have 16 named and unnamed sources confirming that there was a secret mission on BA149."

The airport in Kuwait City was closed about 45 minutes after the plane landed, shortly before 1.15am on August 2 and it was unable to leave.

The hostages were sent around Kuwait and Iraq and used as "human shields" to try to deter attacks by Western forces to liberate Kuwait.

They were eventually allowed to return to the UK after an intervention by former prime minister Sir Edward Heath, who went to see Hussein in Baghdad to appeal for their release. The last hostages were released in December 1990.

Aerial view of Iraqi tanks as they drive along a tree-lined boulevard during that country's invasion of Kuwait City, Kuwait, August 2, 1990. (Photo by The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

“The government has always condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the suffering that followed and the mistreatment of those aboard BA149,” Ms Truss said in the statement.

“The responsibility for these events and the mistreatment of those passengers and crew lies entirely with the government of Iraq at the time.”

Barry Manners, who was kept hostage for four-and-a-half months, told the BBC last year that on a couple of occasions he was told he would be shot dead.

“The guard came out in a rage, kicked me around a bit, put a gun against my head and pulled the trigger a few inches away,” he said.

He said on Tuesday that he did not accept the government's apology.

“It’s a lie. I’m gobsmacked they are still saying this," he said. "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 government statement said the British embassy in Kuwait told the local BA office that flights on August 1 "should be safe, subsequent flights were inadvisable".

BA 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."

The French courts have previously ordered BA to pay compensation of millions of pounds to the hostages. The airline did not respond to a question about what, if any, sums it had paid.

Updated: November 23rd 2021, 1:28 PM