Ba Flight 149

– in the House of Commons at 1:38 pm on 27th April 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Liz Blackman.]

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes 2:04 pm, 27th April 2007

It is good to have a marginally elongated time for the Adjournment debate, although I assure you that I have no intention of occupying all the available time, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Such a tactic is perhaps best reserved for other occasions.

It is good to see that the duty Minister is present. The happy coincidence is that, as a defence Minister, he dealt with some of these issues in a different capacity earlier in his ministerial career. This is a serious matter concerning British Airways flight 149, which landed in Kuwait when it was on its way to Kuala Lumpur. It took off from Heathrow on 1 August 1990 at 6.15 pm, having been delayed for a couple of hours. The captain blamed an air conditioning problem, but has subsequently said that he was hoping that the flight would be pulled. However, the plane did take off at 6.15 pm and arrived in Kuwait City at 3 am the following morning.

As a consequence of the decision to land, the plane was subsequently destroyed, and the crew and passengers were captured by Iraqi troops. They were held for weeks in pretty awful conditions. However distant we are from those events, all of us can recall the terrible picture that filled the newspapers of that poor five-year-old lad, Stuart Lockwood, being patted by Saddam Hussein while clearly traumatised.

I shall discuss what some of the crew and passengers suffered in due course. The official version of events is that the situation could not have been foreseen, that it was unhelpful and unfortunate for those involved, and that the plane was landed before the invasion of Kuwait had taken place. The Prime Minister at the time, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, said:

"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."—[ Hansard, 6 September 1990; Vol. 177, c. 739.]

Already at that time—within 24 hours—significant doubts had been expressed in senior circles about whether that was the case.

I give credit to the present Deputy Prime Minister, who I believe was the Labour party's shadow transport secretary, for investigating that matter and pursuing it over a couple of years. He raised the matter in the House and in letters to the next Prime Minister, John Major.

In a reply dated 2 October 1992, Mr. Major said the following:

"It was clear immediately before the invasion that Iraq was massing troops on its border with Kuwait but the Government had no firm evidence that Saddam Hussein would invade, still less occupy, the whole of Kuwait."

I shall show that that is not the case. He also said:

"The British Government did not attempt to influence BA's decision to operate flight BA 149 on 1-2 August."

I shall show that that is not the case. He continued:

"It was not until approximately 0300 GMT that we had clear evidence of a full-scale Iraqi invasion of Kuwait."

I shall show that that is not the case. In addition, he said:

"I can confirm, however, that there were no British military personnel on board the flight."

Unless semantics are brought into play, I can show that that is not the case.

A further letter from the then Prime Minister to the present Deputy Prime Minister, dated 5 April 1993, pulled back slightly from that position in accepting that the sound of tanks and gunfire had been heard at an earlier point than had been implied by the previous letter. It is worth pointing out that the crew and passengers said that when the planed touched down, they heard the sound of tanks and gunfire. That is evidence that the invasion was well under way by that point, and did not take place some hours later, as Mrs. Thatcher, as Prime Minister, had suggested.

There has been an investigation into this matter on and off by a journalist called Steve Davis. The Minister may, or may not, have seen an article in The Mail on Sunday last year. There was also a documentary on the matter which was put on at a ridiculously late hour by the BBC. That referred to the views of what might be called special forces.

I have here today copies of affidavits signed by members of special forces to the effect that they were on that plane and were put there to carry out a mission at the request of the British Government. It is not my intention, as you will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to give the names of those particular individuals. That would be irresponsible. However, because the Government have continually denied that this took place, I do want to read out the relevant sections that demonstrate that, in fact, the version of events is as the journalist has said, rather than Ministers have continually suggested.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is displaying commendable restraint in suggesting that he would not read out publicly the names of suggested members of United Kingdom special forces, but presumably he is going to ask me to investigate those allegations. Therefore, I hope that he will make those names available to me at any rate.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

That is a perfectly reasonable request. I need to check that with those who have signed the document, but the Minister is right to make that request and I will reflect on it.

I will read out the relevant sections, which do not reveal any sensitive details, I hope. Soldier A, let me say, for lack of a better expression, says:

"I submit this affidavit/statement of truth as my final correspondence on the matter regarding my involvement with Flight BA 149. That details...are true and accurate accounts of events as recalled by me to the very best of my memory and ability as per my direct involvement in the covert operation flown into Kuwait on flight BA 149, and the subsequent gathering of intelligence material of Iraqi troop strengths, positions and unit identification in 1990. That Operation Iscariot was an INC organised and executed operation. That I was on flight BA 149, as a member of INC and the subsequent mission/operation as outlined."

A further affidavit, from someone who I shall for the purpose of the debate call Soldier B, says:

"That entire operation...was...authorised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. That 'the party' only agreed to supply basic facts surrounding operation to help bring out the truth."

That refers to the affidavits.

"That 'Iscariot' was an INC operation, INC standing for 'Increment'. INC was formed shortly after the Iranian embassy siege of 1980 when Margaret Thatcher authorised the set-up and operation of INC due to increased media attention being focused upon the Special Air Service after 'Operation Nimrod' was screened live worldwide that ended the siege. Members are/were drawn mainly from ex forces and even serving forces personnel."

The Minister will understand that I have been given some information. I have had to try to make a judgement in my own way, as best I can and as responsibly as I can, as to what I should say in open session and what I should not say. Let me just say this, which I hope is acceptable. The information that I have been given is that the use of INC was designed to provide Ministers at the time with perfect deniability, that members of INC were paid from secret overseas bank accounts and, crucially, promised immunity from prosecution for any alleged crimes committed while overseas. That deniability is at the heart of the letters that the then Prime Minister, John Major, wrote to the present Deputy Prime Minister saying that there were no British serving personnel on board. There were no British serving personnel on board, but only because serving British personnel were not used. Instead, others who had resigned were used in an arm's-length capacity. Therefore, the impression given is not consistent with the action that was taken.

There is also external corroboration of those statements, or at least of the events of those days. Corroboration has come from Nate Howell, the then United States ambassador in Kuwait, who has confirmed publicly on the record that such an operation took place, and from Ed Ciriello, who has declared himself as a CIA agent working alongside MI6 in Saudi Arabia at the time of the invasion. It has also come from Captain Lawrence Eddingfield, captain of the USS Antietam, who rescued two of the mission team. Richard Tomlinson, the former MI6 agent—the Minister might want to give less credence to this—e-mailed me to confirm that he was aware of the operation and that it did take place. He gave me details consistent with the affidavits that I have referred to.

In the letter to which I have referred, the former Prime Minister John Major said that "no firm evidence" was available to suggest that an invasion was to take place. We know from public historical records, which are now open, that the head of the CIA told the then President Bush a week before the invasion that the Iraqis would invade, and that this warning was passed to both Washington and London. We are told that there was no attempt to influence BA's decision to operate flight 149. Given that we know that the invasion started when the plane was four hours' flying time from Kuwait, the decision not to inform the captain clearly suggests that a decision was taken to allow the plane to land.

I am not making a judgment as to whether it was correct to put those special forces in on that occasion; there was clearly a danger to passengers and crew, but there may well have been a calculation that it was in the national interest to do that. I am not in a position to make that judgment, and I do not make that accusation. Nor am I in any way criticising the individuals who took part in the operation, who doubtless showed considerable dedication and heroism in a difficult situation. What I am criticising is the failure of successive Governments to tell us the truth subsequent to those events, and their failure to understand the legacy for the crew and passengers, which cannot be dealt with satisfactorily until there is closure on this matter. That is the issue that I want the Minister predominantly to address when he replies.

It is also clear from evidence in sworn affidavits submitted to the US Court that the Government of the day advised British Airways that it was safe to fly. In particular, BA had been briefed by the person described as the MI6 head in Kuwait, whose name I also have, that there would be no invasion, so BA appears also to have been misled. With 200,000 troops and tanks gathered on the border very close to Kuwait, and given the general background noise from Iraq at the time, I suggest that it was a reasonable assumption that there might well have been an invasion, even if there was no detailed intelligence to confirm that.

The plane touched down, moreover, at a deserted airport. Every other flight from every other airline had been cancelled for hours, there were no staff, and the one or two individuals who were hanging around were considerably surprised when a plane touched down. We are asked to believe that Britain—with all our expertise and intelligence, and with people on the ground—was the only country in the world not to realise what was going on, and to be unable to cancel our flight into the country. That stretches credibility.

I also point out in support of my proposition that the time of invasion was known. An unlikely source, Mrs. Thatcher's memoirs, "The Downing Street Years", gives a timeline significantly different from the one that she gave to Parliament—one which corresponds to the timeline that I believe actually occurred. So even the Prime Minister of the day herself changed her mind about the version of events given to the House of Commons, but no correction of the comments made at the time has been given to the House.

There is a human aspect to this issue, and that is the experience of the hostages. I have met some of those who were held in Kuwait and subsequently in Iraq by Saddam Hussein. Many of them bear the scars to this day in terms of how they feel and the effect that it has had on their lives. Even if they did not experience physical abuse, they are still scarred. Plenty of them did experience physical abuse and there are eye-witness accounts of murder, mock executions, serious assaults, rape and other sexual assaults. The Minister will know that a dossier of the full horrors was compiled. Some 1,868 people were interviewed on the instigation of the then Defence Secretary, Tom King, but the dossier has never been released. The Minister was asked, when he was Defence Secretary, to release that document by Ann Clwyd. When he refused to do so, I understand that she reported him to the parliamentary ombudsman under the open Government rules. I am not clear what became of that complaint: perhaps the Minister will tell us.

One of the major demands of the crew and passengers, for whom I am speaking today, is that the dossier compiled in Operation Sandcastle, as I believe it was called, should be put in the public domain. If it contains sensitive security details, such as the names of individuals, they can be redacted before publication. However, it is not acceptable to those who went through so much for the issue to be swept under the carpet, as appears to have been done.

Those who were present witnessed some horrendous examples of brutality by the Iraqis on Kuwaiti civilians. They could see them from where they were staying. Those people came from the normality of Britain and were catapulted into that situation, for months on end. They had to live in terrible conditions, often with no running water, and it is not surprising that the legacy of their experiences has remained with them for many years.

Those to whom I have spoken, both crew and passengers, have genuinely not been motivated by a desire to obtain compensation. However, they are angry with the Government—not this Government in particular, but the British Government as an entity—that French passengers won more than £3 million from British Airways in compensation, and that US passengers were paid off when BA settled in secret rather than have the matter exposed in a Texas court. I shall say no more on the issue of compensation, because I am aware of its sensitivity.

The plane, BA 149, was destroyed by, as I understand it, a US fighter plane, to prevent its falling into the hands of Saddam Hussein. That may have been a sensible military decision, but it meant that BA got a huge insurance payout, unlike the passengers on the plane.

This Government's response has been disappointing, and I hope that the Minister will go some way towards redressing that this afternoon. I am not making a political issue of this. The events to which I refer took place under a different Administration back in 1990, and insofar as they were challenged, were challenged effectively by the present Deputy Prime Minister, who made it his business to do so as the then shadow Transport Secretary.

Naively, I thought that when information was brought to the attention of the present Government action would follow—after all, to put it crudely, righting a wrong from the past was no skin off their nose—yet I am disappointed by the response I received. I wrote to the Prime Minister on 16 October 2006 to ask him to do three things. I make the same requests of the Minister for Europe.

I asked the Prime Minister if he would meet a small delegation of passengers and crew to hear their concerns, which has not happened since their return from Iraq. I asked if he would arrange for the release, subject to the removal of operationally sensitive material, of the internal review papers relating to the episode, which I understand goes under the name of Operation Sandcastle. Finally, I asked him to instigate an inquiry to consider all aspects of the episode and what might be learned from it.

I am sorry to say that the Prime Minister did not reply, so I wrote a further letter on 20 November asking him to do so. In December, I received a reply not from the Prime Minister but from a Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whose substantive comment was:

"Regarding BA flight 149, the Government of the day made its position clear and I have nothing further to add."

That is far from helpful, given the concerns that have been expressed.

I received a letter from Downing street, but it was written by somebody as far away from the Prime Minister as possible, so given the strong feelings of the crew and passengers, I wrote again to the Prime Minister, on 10 January, to ask for his response,. All I received in return was a further letter from the Foreign Office Minister in which he said:

"I have, however, suggested to Ann Clwyd that passengers and crew might like to take the opportunity to meet the FCO's Director of Consular Services, Rob Macaire, so that he can hear of their experiences and perhaps seek their thoughts on how we could further develop our consular support to British Nationals caught up in traumatic events overseas."

In so far as that is an offer, it is better than nothing, but it is not much.

I am pursuing the issue for two reasons. The first is that I do not like cover-ups. I do not like the fact that the House was told something that was subsequently shown to be incorrect and that no correction was made to the House. As a matter of parliamentary democracy, there should be a correction.

Most of all, however, I am pursuing the matter for the crew and passengers who suffered weeks or months of hell under Saddam Hussein. After all, in recent years the Government told us that Saddam Hussein had to be dealt with because he was a threat to human rights. That was apparently part of the justification for the Iraq war.

The individuals held in Iraq deserve better treatment than they have received from this country. Through no fault of their own, they ended up in a terrible situation and were treated appallingly by Saddam Hussein's regime. The least they should expect from this country is an explanation, so that they can finally achieve closure on an important matter.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 2:28 pm, 27th April 2007

I thank Norman Baker for giving me this opportunity to try to answer the various questions he has raised about BA flight 149 on 1 and 2 August 1990.

The House will be aware that the hon. Gentleman has alleged on several occasions, in the House and elsewhere, and—as he has made clear—in correspondence with the current Government, that the British Government of the day in 1990, knowing that the invasion was about to take place, negligently allowed British Airways flight 149 to land in Kuwait after it had been invaded by Iraq. He has also alleged that the Government did that to facilitate the entry of UK "special operatives" to Kuwait, and as a result endangered the passengers and crew on the flight.

The hon. Gentleman has linked two issues. The first concerns the treatment of the passengers and crew. No one is in any doubt that they were treated appallingly, as were many people—not least the people of Kuwait. I say that, speaking as someone who was a regular visitor to Kuwait—both as a Foreign Office Minister and subsequently as Secretary of State for Defence. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity of visiting Kuwait, but a significant proportion of that country's small population disappeared during that period and I regularly visited the museum that was established by the Government and met many people who had lost—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Liz Blackman.]

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I regularly met quite senior members of the Government, the royal family and people at all levels of Kuwaiti society who lost family and friends during that period. No one on behalf of the Government is in any way going to underestimate the appalling treatment of people from this country and from Kuwait at the hands of what was a brutal and appalling regime. There is simply no doubt about that and I am not going to enter into a debate with the hon. Gentleman about it. I hope that he will accept from me that the Government take those matters every bit as seriously as he does.

The real issue—and the real challenge that the hon. Gentleman makes—relates to how all that came about. His suggestion is that there was a deliberate effort to take advantage of this flight in order to place Government operatives in this position for whatever reason—if I may paraphrase what he described—knowing that in all likelihood the passengers on the plane would effectively be taken prisoner.

I am not going to go through the various allegations, not least because the hon. Gentleman has indicated that he has further evidence to substantiate them. I am perfectly willing to look further into that, but I want to repeat what he fairly set out as the then Government's position. He quoted the then Prime Minister's statement of 6 September 1990. I apologise for repeating it, but it is important to set out the then Government's view fairly. She said:

"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"—[ Hansard, 6 September 1990; Vol. 177, c. 739.].

The Government were satisfied that there was no negligence or oversight on their part. As the hon. Gentleman has quite properly set out, in both 1992 and 1993, the then Prime Minister, now Sir John Major, replied to letters on this particular issue from my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The letters emphasised that those serving British military personnel were on board the flight. Again, the Government of the day were satisfied that there was no negligence or oversight on their part.

I have studied some of the material that the hon. Gentleman relies on. I have read at least two newspaper or magazine publications about these allegations. I hope that he will accept from me that nothing that I have heard today—so far, at any rate—has taken the matter much further forward. He will understand, I hope, the point I made about the identities of the people involved. I praise him for his responsibility in not naming the individuals publicly, but he will understand that I have means of verifying whether these people are, in fact, who they say they are.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

It is my understanding that elements in the Ministry of Defence have been in touch with these people subsequent to the signing of the affidavits, which may suggest that the MOD knows who they are.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I am not aware of that, but it would be possible for me to verify, for example, whether the antecedents are as the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. I am certainly willing to do that, but it obviously depends on my being given their identity. I mention that simply because there are those who sometimes believe that they have been involved in events of this kind, but sadly it sometimes turns out not to be the case. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I have looked at the evidence to date and I have personally asked both the relevant Departments with responsibilities in this area whether the outline allegations are in any way justified. I am going to read out some words very carefully, which go beyond what has been said before, and should not be capable of misinterpretation. I want to make it clear that I have been told that the Government at the time did not attempt in any way to exploit the flight by any means whatever.

The hon. Gentleman has criticised previous statements as ambiguous and capable of different interpretations. On the evidence that I have seen so far and the investigations that I have caused to be set in motion, there is no justification for suggesting that the Government of the day sought to take advantage of the flight for any of the reasons that he suggested.

However, I am perfectly willing—as I always am—to look at evidence, but that means facts. It means specific affidavits, if he has them.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept, in the spirit of friendly parliamentary debate, that simply saying that there are affidavits and not producing them is not particularly helpful for a Minister who is willing to consider matters and to check whether they contain facts that might allow the matter to be taken further. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman waves the affidavits at me, and I can see that they are pieces of paper with writing on them, but that does not take matters much further unless I have the opportunity to see for myself what they contain, as well as the identities of the people who have supposedly sworn them, so that I can check them. I am willing to do that. I approach these matters with an entirely open mind.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out that neither this Government nor I were in any way responsible for the events, but, as he says—I agree—if there are allegations, it is important that they should be subject to investigation. However, at this stage, because there is no new evidence before me, I am not prepared to launch an inquiry or to act on his request until I have had a further opportunity to consider matters in more detail. I assure him that I will approach matters in an open-minded way, as long as I have the facts before me. I hope that he will accept that in the spirit in which it is offered. So far, I have seen nothing today or during my investigations that would cause me to revise the views of my predecessors or previous Governments.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Three o'clock.