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Public Records: Landing of BA Flight 149 in Kuwait

Volume 704: debated on Tuesday 23 November 2021

Today the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) will release files covering the events surrounding British Airways flight 149 (BA149) to the National Archives. BA149 landed at Kuwait City on 2 August 1990 as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was beginning. The passengers and crew from the flight were subsequently held hostage by Iraq and mistreated. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) provided consular and diplomatic support to those involved from the outset, but there have long been questions about how much the Government knew of the situation at the time.

We now know that Iraq was beginning a full invasion of Kuwait on the night of 1 to 2 August. The files being released today describe how things looked to those involved at the time.

On 1 August the British Embassy in Kuwait told the local British Airways office that while flights on 1 August should be safe, subsequent flights were inadvisable. BA149 took off from London at 18:04 GMT on 1 August, almost two hours later than scheduled because of technical problems. Its ultimate destination was Kuala Lumpur with a short stopover in Kuwait. At about 22:15 GMT, during its flight towards Kuwait, the captain spoke to the captain of another flight which had left Kuwait for London that evening. The pilot of that flight reported nothing unusual in Kuwait and no reason for BA149 to depart from its planned route.

The files show that the British ambassador in Kuwait informed the Resident Clerk—the officer on overnight duty to deal with emergencies—at the FCO in London about reports of an Iraqi incursion into Kuwait around 00:00 GMT on 2 August 1990, while the British Airways 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, the Cabinet Office and the Secret Intelligence Service, but not to British Airways.

BA149 landed at Kuwait City at 01:13 GMT. Around 45 minutes later Kuwait City airport was closed and BA149 was unable to leave. Its passengers and crew were subsequently held hostage by the Iraqis, with the last hostages released in December 1990.

The Government have always condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the suffering that followed and the mistreatment of those aboard BA149. The responsibility for these events and the mistreatment of those passengers and crew lies entirely with the Government of Iraq at the time.

The files show that in the call to the Resident Clerk, the British ambassador in Kuwait 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. 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.

There was also speculation at the time and since that the flight was used to carry members of UK Special Forces. The files are consistent with the then Minister for Europe’s statement in April 2007 that

“the Government at the time did not attempt in any way to exploit the flight by any means whatever.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2007; Vol. 459, c. 1217.]

The call made by Her Majesty’s ambassador to 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.