As flight BA149 left Heathrow on August 1, 1990, its passengers were uneasy. Saddam Hussein had been threatening to invade Kuwait and the world’s media were reporting a troop build-up near the Iraqi border.
They were reassured by
A few hours later, they were plunged into a nightmare. Both passengers and crew — more than 380 people of many nationalities, including 11 children — were taken hostage by Iraqi forces who had invaded the country while the plane was in flight.
In 1990 Saddam Hussein (pictured) had been threatening to invade Kuwait and the world’s media were reporting a troop build-up near the Iraqi border
Over the next five months as they were held as ‘human shields’ the hostages witnessed horrors, including murders and mock executions.
Several women were raped and others sexually assaulted. Three people held by the Iraqis have since taken their own lives and a number have had psychiatric treatment.
Now, after more than 30 years of denial, the Government has admitted it knew the passengers were in danger before the flight touched down.
Shortly after it landed, Kuwait airport was attacked by Iraqi fighter jets. Republican Guard tanks were already in the city.
In a written statement, Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, has confirmed that Parliament has been misled about what happened to BA149.
Newly-released files reveal the British ambassador in Kuwait warned the Foreign Office about the invasion, but BA was not told.
In other words, the British Government knew what was happening and allowed that planeload of innocent people to fly into a war zone.
The cruelty they suffered as a result is horrifying. The hostages were met by Iraqi conscripts who forced them at gunpoint on to buses.
When a stewardess got back on a bus to check under the seats for belongings left on board, she heard a movement behind her and turned to see a smiling Iraqi soldier, an AK-47 assault rifle on his shoulder. She was raped.
Barry Manners, one of the British hostages, was beaten up and threatened with execution: a guard held a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He survived, but will be forever emotionally scarred.
I’ve been trying to piece together what happened on BA149 for 31 years. When the passengers and crew were taken hostage, I was working on a newspaper in London and, along with everyone else, we were reporting the apparent misfortune of this group, who had left London — many simply intending to transit through Kuwait to other parts of the world — and unwittingly flown into a war.
Then a contact in the intelligence services called me and said: ‘There’s something not right about this, you should investigate’.
The BA149 jet in Kuwait. Both passengers and crew were taken hostage by Iraqi forces who had invaded the country while the plane was in flight
I didn’t know it then but the investigation would — literally — take half my life.
Why would any responsible government not have diverted the flight when it had the ability to do so? I believe it was because there was a group of Special Forces soldiers among the passengers — something the Government still refuses to admit.
So the lie over the fate of the British Airways plane masks an even bigger deceit. The passengers and crew of BA Flight 149 were delivered into the hands of Saddam Hussein as cover to get a military team into the country to monitor the movements of Iraqi troops, on a mission authorised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Incidentally, the new information serves to confirm that Mrs Thatcher lied to Parliament on September 6, 1990, when she said: ‘The British Airways flight landed, its passengers disembarked and the crew handed over to the successive crew, and the crew then went to their hotels. This all took place before the invasion.’
She then turned to her backbenchers, emphasising the point: ‘The invasion was later.’
The Foreign Office has expressed deep sympathy for those caught in the drama but what the human shields want is the truth.
From their point of view it was terrible enough to be landed in the situation in the first place, but then to be denied the right to know why you were put through such an ordeal and denied public recognition of your experience has been intolerable.
The Government has done everything it can to delay telling the truth, citing Covid as an excuse for only now publishing 30-year-old files which should have been made available a year ago.
And I believe the Government has done this to take the sting out of what comes next: the publication of Operation Sandcastle, an investigation into the suffering of the hostages, both those who arrived on BA149 and those UK nationals who were living in Kuwait and rounded up.
Stewardess Helen Peters. As they were held as ‘human shields’ the hostages witnessed horrors, including murders and mock executions
A year after the crisis, the Royal Military Police carried out more than 300 interviews with hostages, in order to compile a dossier on their experiences: it has been suppressed for 30 years, but now looks likely to become public, perhaps by the end of the year.
Truss’s admission this week might be seen as a calculated attempt to create a distraction before that happens. The central mystery though, is whether the flight was — as an ever-increasing body of evidence suggests — carrying miltary personnel.
On this, Truss continues to hold the long-held Government line.
‘There was also speculation at the time and since that the flight was used to carry members of UK Special Forces,’ she said in her statement.
‘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”.’
Barry Manners, who is from Kent, told me he was utterly shocked by Truss’s statement.
‘It’s a lie. I’m gobsmacked they are still saying this. So, no, I don’t accept the apology. It’s a fudge.’
A measure of the extent to which the events of three decades ago continue to haunt him came last week, when he collapsed and had to be taken to hospital after the strain of recalling his experiences in a succession of media interviews took their toll.
Manners was one of many passengers who noticed a group of fit, young men boarding Flight BA149 (which was already delayed by two hours) at the last minute. Some wondered whether they were members of a sports team.
At Kuwait, the cabin door opened and that same group was greeted by a uniformed British officer, then whisked away before any of the other passengers left the plane.
I have recently learned from reliable military sources that there was even a UK military presence in the control tower that night to ensure that BA149 landed.
In 1990 it was easier to hide the truth. There were no mobile phones to record what was happening and no social media to contradict official accounts.
John and Jennifer Chappell, two of the 11 children on the flight. Now, after more than 30 years of denial, the Government has admitted it knew the passengers were in danger before the flight touched down
Over the years I have talked to scores of BA149 captives, in the course of 300 interviews for my book, Operation Trojan Horse, which was published this summer.
Many seem superficially okay, but once they start talking about Kuwait, they disintegrate, shaking and crying at the memory.
They were taken to more than 70 sites all over Iraq and Kuwait, some of them nuclear and chemical research facilities, as Saddam had decided to use them as human shields to deter Allied air raids.
Living conditions were often appalling and food scarce. One group was held in a container under the sluice gates of a dam.
Daphne Halkyard, who was on the plane with her husband Henry, told me captivity was unremittingly grim: ‘Chronic fear became a way of life for us . . . we were afraid of being bombed by the Allies. We were afraid of illness.
‘We were afraid of being lynched. Our life was on the line. We had no illusions whatsoever about that.’
Daphne and Henry are now dead. Many others have suffered long-term health problems or needed psychiatric treatment.
There have been suicides and attempted suicides. Two studies published in the British Medical Journal have highlighted the trauma of the victims, an agony of which the public knows almost nothing.
Barry Manners (pictured) one of the British hostages, was beaten up and threatened with execution: a guard held a gun to his head and pulled the trigger
More than half lost their jobs and careers or homes, or suffered other severe financial damage or long-term depression and illness.
Both Tory and Labour governments have been unwilling to admit the truth about what happened to the captives in Iraqi hands.
Operation Sandcastle has been kept secret, supposedly because of a pledge of confidentiality given to the interviewees, though every person I have talked to — without exception — wants the truth to come out.
A note placed in the House of Commons library after MP Ann Clwyd reported a subsequent Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, to the parliamentary ombudsman for breaching the ‘open government’ code by not publishing the report, says it details eyewitness accounts of one murder, eight other attributable deaths, up to 70 mock executions and serious physical assaults, 17 rapes and 23 sexual assaults and details of 80 murders of Iraqi citizens witnessed by British hostages.
One victim was a BA steward who was a crew member due to fly with BA149 on to Madras then Kuala Lumpur.
He was held with some British prisoners. The men could see a trench had been dug nearby and left open.
They were to be shot and dumped there as soon as Allied troops arrived.
The steward was then transferred to another base where he was repeatedly raped. The captives were told if they attempted to escape they would be shot.
‘I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to get shot. Sometimes I felt I just wanted to go outside and run and get it over with,’ he told me.
The UK Government had no excuse for failing to anticipate the invasion. Records I have obtained from the CIA — based on testimony and quotes from senior officials — clearly show they issued a formal warning of war on July 25 and upgraded it to a warning of attack on August 1.
A note placed in the House of Commons library after MP Ann Clwyd (pictured) reported a subsequent Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, to the parliamentary ombudsman for breaching the ‘open government’ code by not publishing the report, says it details eyewitness accounts of murder and sexual assault
They have publicly stated that they predicted the invasion and sent out an alert 12 hours before it happened, which is nine hours before BA149 even left Heathrow.
The Government ignored these warnings when it allowed British Airways to fly to Kuwait.
My long investigation into the fate of the flight — which includes interviews with soldiers and spies who planned and took part in the mission, and access to secret documents — reveals that a hand-picked team of soldiers had received special orders from the Government.
Most of them were operatives from a group which has had many names, but which was then known as The Inc, short for Increment.
It is designed for so-called black ops and is drawn mainly from the SAS and the SBS. The nine-man team arrived on BA149 on August 2, 1990, and left the airport as Iraqi troops were entering the city.
One two-man team went south — to the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia border — and delivered valuable intelligence on Iraqi troop movements. London and Washington were concerned that Saddam’s army would go on to invade Saudi Arabia, giving him control of nearly half the world’s oil.
This team was able to report that the Iraqis were, for the moment, adopting defensive rather than offensive positions at the border.
When one of the men in this team became seriously ill, they had to be rescued by a U.S. helicopter and taken to the USS Antietam, a destroyer in the Gulf.
British military sources have denied the rescue happened but it was confirmed to me by the captain of the Antietam, who is now retired and a vicar in a church in San Diego, California.
The other teams worked undercover in and around Kuwait City, delivering crucial intelligence that helped the Allies in the successful military campaign — Desert Storm — that evicted the Iraqis from Kuwait in January and February 1991.
Documents released along with the Truss statement appear to accidentally confirm there were defence personnel on the flight, also contradicting three decades of denials.
‘There was also speculation at the time and since that the flight was used to carry members of UK Special Forces,’ Liz Truss said in her statement
The document was a briefing paper prepared for a parliamentary debate on BA149 in 2007, 17 years after the event. It refers to ‘defence section’ staff on board.
The survivors of BA149 do not accept the Government spin.
Stewardess Helen Peters, from south Devon, was so traumatised by the experience that she had to leave England to escape the fear and frightening dreams, finding some kind of peace in New Zealand.
At one stage when a group was herded into a small room by armed and edgy Iraqis she thought she would be shot.
She told me recently that the Government was still not telling the truth and she wanted a full apology.
‘Unfortunately they have acknowledged only half the story of why BA149 landed in Kuwait.’
The Halyards’ daughter Rowan is similarly disgusted by the new revelations. ‘I find it sickening, when I think about it, of who my parents were and the decent, honourable, kind people they were.
‘And them flying through the night into what was known to be a war zone.’
The passengers are determined to continue to seek justice for their ruined lives.
I can reveal that their lawyers are poring over the Truss statement and documents in preparation for a new attempt to attempt to sue the Government and British Airways, for actions resulting in harm to the passengers and crew.
The human shields and their supporters are still determined to get a full and frank apology — with nothing left out.
Operation Trojan Horse by Stephen Davis is published by John Blake, £20.
Tips to Find Low Priced Luxury Holiday Package Deals Fast