Call to British Airways might have averted 1990 Kuwait hostage crisis

Originally posted to The Guardian website, 23 November 2021

Ambassador warned Foreign Office an Iraqi invasion was under way but this was not passed on to airline

Hundreds of British passengers might have avoided being taken hostage by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1990 if a UK diplomatic call informing Whitehall of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait had been relayed to British Airways, the Foreign Office has disclosed.

New papers revealed under the 20-year-rule show that the UK ambassador to Kuwait rang the Foreign Office duty clerk to warn him that an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was under way. The message was then passed around Whitehall, including to Downing Street and the intelligence services.

But it was not relayed to British Airways. At the time BA flight 149 was in the air and heading for a stopover at Kuwait airport, from where it was due to travel on to another destination in Asia.Advertisement

Hundreds of British passengers were captured by Iraqi forces and some were dispersed across Iraq to be used as human shields to prevent missile attacks on key Iraqi military installations. Some were held hostage for as long as five months.

Some of the passengers were subjected to sexual violence or saw horrific scenes, and many developed post-traumatic stress disorder.

The foreign secretary, Liz Truss, apologised for the failure until now to make the existence of the call public, and said she extended her sympathy to those captured and held.

There has long been controversy about why BA was not informed of the danger involved in flying to Kuwait. It has often been claimed by some passengers and cabin crew that UK special forces were also on the flight and that the UK was desperate for the flight to reach Kuwait so they could disperse and provide on-the-ground intelligence about the invasion.

Truss addressed this by repeating the formula used by ministers in 2007: “The government at the time did not seek to exploit the flight in any way by any means whatsoever.”

The tortured formula is explained by officials as necessary so as not to breach a rule that no ministerial discussion of British special forces is allowed.

Truss’s statement details the conversations that took place between the embassy and London, stressing that in the call to the duty clerk the embassy was not clear whether a limited incursion or a full-scale invasion was under way.

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