British Airways Flight 149
A British Airways Boeing 747-136, similar to the aircraft involved in the episode.
|Date||2 August 1990|
|Summary||Passengers and crew taken hostage hours after the Gulf War started|
|Site||Kuwait City, Kuwait|
|Aircraft type||Boeing 747-136|
|Aircraft name||City of Leeds|
|Flight origin||London Heathrow Airport|
|1st stopover||Kuwait International Airport, Kuwait City|
|2nd stopover||Madras International Airport, Madras|
|Destination||Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport, Kuala Lumpur|
British Airways Flight 149 was a flight from London Heathrow Airport to Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport (the former international airport for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), via Kuwait City and Madras (now called Chennai), operated by British Airways using a Boeing 747-136 jumbo jet on 2 August 1990.
Following the airliner's arrival at Kuwait International Airport, outside of Kuwait City, the flight was never resumed as a consequence of events ongoing on the ground. Prior to landing at Kuwait International, the neighbouring nation of Iraq had launched a full-scale invasion of Kuwait during the early hours of that morning. Within hours, elements of the Iraqi Army had rapidly advanced as far as Kuwait City and had taken control of the airport. Accordingly, the aircraft used to operate the flight, its passengers and its crew were all captured by the occupying Iraqi forces on the ground. Following their capture, the majority of the passengers and crew were initially detained at several nearby hotels along with other foreigners under armed guard. The airliner was later destroyed on the ground, the identity of whom were responsible for its destruction has remained unknown.
During their detention, multiple passengers have alleged to have witnessed a number of atrocities performed by Iraqi forces. While women and children were offered the opportunity to return home during late August, the remaining detainees were dispersed to various sites and were used by Iraq as human shields to deter offensive operations by opposing Coalition forces during the Gulf War. During one infamous incident, an Iraqi television broadcast showed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein alongside a number of the detainees as a part of wartime propaganda efforts. To secure their release, Former British Prime Minister Edward Heath personally travelled to Baghdad to lead negotiations, which included direct talks between Heath and Saddam Hussein. The passengers were later released from their captivity following the conclusion of the conflict. Several investigations have since been conducted into the incident, leading to official denials from John Major, Britain's Prime Minister at the time, of any government efforts to influence British Airways' actions in regards to Flight 149.
At 18:05 GMT on 1 August 1990, British Airways Flight 149 (BA 149) departed from London Heathrow Airport, its route to Kuala Lumpur took the flight via Kuwait City and Madras. The flight had been delayed several hours; according to the captain of the first leg of the flight, Richard Brunyate, the cause was a fault in the aircraft's auxiliary power unit; some passengers claim to have heard crewmembers arguing if they should proceed or not. The flight had a scheduled stopover at Kuwait City; however, this was not cancelled or changed despite media reports of the worsening political situation in the region. Kuwait's larger neighbour, Iraq, had issued demands for territory to be surrendered to its control and had been staging a military buildup on the border between the two nations for weeks. On 1 August 1990, the same day as BA 149's flight, Iraq launched a military invasion of Kuwait.
At 01:13 GMT on 2 August 1990, BA 149 landed at Kuwait International Airport and the passengers were disembarked for what should have been an hour wait. The airport was deserted and there was little-to-no staff on the ground; at the point of its landing, all other scheduled flights by other airlines had been cancelled for several hours already at this point. According to some passenger accounts, those who were disembarking in Kuwait proceeded to immigration but found that their luggage was not being unloaded. There were reports that, prior to BA 149's landing, British military personnel had taken control of Kuwait Airport's control tower. At 02:05 GMT, the passengers began boarding the Boeing 747 in anticipation of the next leg to Madras. During the preparations to takeoff, the flight crew were informed that the airport would be closed for two hours. At 2:20 GMT, Iraqi fighter-bombers reportedly bombed the airport's runway, preventing its use.
At 4:30 GMT, both the crew and passengers that had been on board Flight 149 were transported by bus to the airport's onsite hotel. On 3 August 1990, it was reported that all of the 367 passengers and 18 crewmembers from BA 149 were safe and well. Late on in the conflict, the empty aircraft, which had remained at Kuwait International, was destroyed on the ground by an aircraft attack during the latter stages of the conflict; the destruction may have been an intentional act of the US military. Alternatively, the aircraft may have been destroyed by Iraqi ground forces during their withdrawal from Kuwait. As a consequence of its destruction, British Airways was able to collect on the airliner's insurance.
In the days that followed, British Airways expressed its outrage at the Flight 149 situation. BA's chairman, Lord King, publically blamed the Foreign Office and the British security services for their failure to promptly designate Kuwait as a war zone, which would have caused the flight to be diverted. Very quickly, there was considerable public controversy over if the British government would have been able to intervene to avoid Flight 149's detention, as well as when it had become aware of the invasion of Kuwait. During September 1990, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated that Flight 149 had landed at Kuwait hours prior to the invasion. However, passengers on board BA 149 reportedly heard gunfire and tank activity during their landing at Kuwait City; Margaret Thatcher's memoirs have also attributed an earlier point in time for the invasion. British Airways and the Foreign Office have both claimed that Flight 149 had landed in Kuwait two hours following the start of the invasion.
Detention of passengers
The majority of the detained passengers were initially transferred to the airport hotel within the boundaries of the airport. Later on, the passengers were confined to various hotels in Kuwait, also designated by the Iraqis for other foreigners to report to. The Iraqis claimed the passengers to be "honoured guests", and were moved in the following week under armed escort by a mix of policemen and soldiers from Iraq, to locations in Kuwait and Iraq. The British transferees were accommodated primarily on the upper floors of the Melia Mansour Hotel; hostages from other nationalities were housed in different hotels.
|ABC News - "Hostages Released in Iraq"|
|BBC News - "Outrage at Iraqi TV Hostage Show"|
According to statements made by some of the ex-hostages, multiple passengers have claimed to have witnessed various atrocities during their detention, such as attacks made upon Kuwaiti citizens by Iraqi forces; some hostages had been themselves subjected to forms of mental and physical abuse, which included instances of mock executions and rape. After ten days, the detainees were dispersed to various military-industrial sites. Women and children were given the opportunity to return home in late August, whereas those who remained were used as human shields, and transferred between sites. Sites would contain between eight and 20 detainees of mixed nationalities, typically British and American citizens, as well as French, German, Japanese and others.
Different groups of detainees were released at various stages, often dependent upon their nationality, but also including criteria such as ill health and the bodies of those individuals who died during their captivity. While some passengers were detained only for a few weeks, others were detained for months, often in poor conditions. Former British Prime Minister Edward Heath travelled in person to Baghdad for direct talks with Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, and is credited with leading negotiations to successfully release the hostages taken. During mid December 1990, the last of the remaining American and British hostages were released by Iraq.
Several court actions were raised by passengers against British Airways in regards to Flight 149, often accusing the airline of negligence by continuing on to land at Kuwait hours after the invasion, as well as for loss of property. On 15 July 1999, a group of French passengers were awarded damages from British Airways valued at £2.5 million; separately, the airliner also chose to settle over compensation claims filed on behalf of US passengers. During October 2006, several of the former hostages called for an independent public inquiry into allegations that Flight 149 had not been diverted by the British government due to the flight playing a role in a state intelligence operation.
A 2007 documentary, commissioned and shown by the BBC and shown elsewhere by Discovery Channel, claimed that the US and UK governments were aware almost as soon as Iraqi Armed Forces crossed the border and by 0300 Kuwaiti time were fully informed that an invasion had taken place and fighting had ensued. This awareness would have been at least an hour before BA149 touched down; during which several other flights had diverted to Bahrain or other alternative destinations to avoid a potential situation. During October 1992, Prime Minister John Major, who had taken over from predecessor Margaret Thatcher, denied any attempt to influence British Airways in regards to the decision to operate BA 149, however, this has been contradicted by sworn statements that British Airways had in fact been briefed by the British government and informed by them that it had been 'safe to fly'.
It has been alleged that the British government had allowed Flight 149 to proceed for intelligence-gathering purposes by transporting British operatives to Kuwait. On 2 October 1992, in response to a question on the issue, Major said "I can confirm, however, that there were no British military personnel on board the flight". However, the 2007 documentary included an interview with an anonymous former SAS soldier, who claimed that he and his team had been on Flight 149 for the purposes of intelligence gathering in Kuwait. Several soldiers also confirmed to a parliamentary investigation that they had participated in such a mission, and that this mission had been at the request of the British government and authorised directly by the prime minister. During a Parliamentary response by MP Norman Baker, external accounts have given corroboration to such statements, including from the then-United States Ambassador to Kuwait Nate Howell, former member of MI6 Richard Tomlinson, and individuals claiming to be Central Intelligence Agency operatives at the time.
- "Ba Flight 149." House of Commons, 27 April 2007.
- Jempson, Mike and Andrew Marshall. "Fighters over Kuwait as BA 149 flew in." The Independent, 30 August 1992.
- Jempson, Mike and Andrew Marshall. "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". The Independent, 9 August 1992.
- Marshall, Andrew. "The strange flight of BA 149: Why did no one prevent a British Airways flight into Kuwait after the invasion began? Andrew Marshall on a riddle that won't go away." The Independent, 1 August 1992.
- "British Airways Passengers, Crew Safe." New Strates Times, 3 August 1991. p. 1.
- "The Gulf." House of Commons, 6 September 1990.
- "Putting Noncombatants at Risk: Saddam's Use of "Human Shields" ". Central Intelligence Agency, January 2003. Retrieved 29 October 2011.
- "UK hostages describe Kuwait ordeal". BBC News, 16 October 2006.
- "Iraq's hostages subject to abuse, freed French say." Lost Angeles Times, 31 October 1990.
- "1990: Iraq frees British hostages." BBC - On This Day, 10 December 1990.
- Watson-Smyth, Kate."Jet passengers held hostage by Iraq sue BA." The Independent, 8 August 1999.
- "Ex-hostages demand UK inquiry." BBC News, 16 October 2006.
- BBC News- "BA loses Iraq hostage appeal "
- Pre-destruction photos of destroyed aircraft on Airliners.net
- "Can we trust our rulers ever to tell the truth?" Stephen Davis, New Statesman, 28 July 2003