In the early hours of August 2, 1990, a British Airways flight carrying 367 passengers landed in Kuwait amid an invasion by Iraqi forces.
The passengers and crew were taken hostage by Iraqi soldiers for use as human shields against American intervention with some, including Broadstairs’ man Barry Manners, spending four and a half months in captivity, believing they would die.
For three decades the British government did not reveal that the Foreign Office had been warned that the invasion was underway before BA flight 149 landed in the city to refuel.
Today, as the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) releases files covering the events to the National Archive, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has apologised that the warning was never publicly disclosed or acknowledged.
In a written statement she says: “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.”
Mr Manners has branded the Minister’s statement as a false “dog ate my homework” excuse, likening the captivity of those aboard the plane to a “clerical error.”
A denial by the Minister that the passenger flight, full of people heading to Kuala Lumpur for holidays, was also used to transport a Special Forces squad to Kuwait has also been labelled as a “lie” by Mr Manners.
The 54-year-old retired estate agency owner said there was evidence of the military task force being onboard flight 149, including the fact that he and other passengers saw them board after the flight take off was delayed for two hours.
He also says the Minister’s claim that British Airways was not told of the invasion is “untrue” and that the British attaché in Kuwait had informed the airline. The claims are also made by author Stephen Davies in his book Operation Trojan Horse which uses survivor accounts and senior intelligence input to claim the flight was used for a ‘deniable’ intelligence operation to sneak the military group into Kuwait.
Mr Manners was 24 years old when he boarded BA flight 149 with his partner who he was caring for at the time due to illness. The pair were headed for a holiday in Kuala Lumpur where his friend’s family lived.
He said: “Eight British military personnel boarded the flight. This was some two hours after we had been scheduled to take off but were delayed. You could tell they were military. This was an 11th hour special forces operation, the government knew about the invasion at that point.
“Tony Paice, the defence attaché and MI6 officer in Kuwait, has broken the official secrets act to say he did brief British Airways about the situation in Kuwait although BA and the government continue to claim they had no knowledge.
“This government apology is trying to pretend it was all some sort of miscommunication but I believe they just thought they would get away with it and didn’t expect the Iraqi advance to be so quick, Kuwait was taken in just five hours.
“The apology we are hearing is nonsense.”
Mr Manners was held hostage from August 2 until December 10 and underwent “mock” executions several times, being dragged out and having a gun put to his head before it was fired in the air.
His friend, who was Malaysian, managed to escape by disguising himself as a cleaner.
Mr Manners said: “I was taken to Baghdad and then northern Iraq as a human shield. We were there to be executed if the Americans invaded, either bombed or shot. They even told us the order we would be executed in. I was first because I had upset them a few times and called one a **** and told them what I thought of them and their president. I was a 24 year old…”
Mr Manners and some of the other hostages were held at a dam site and he says the dam engineering manager, Mr Roel, tried hard to make things “as humane as possible.”
He said: “He got us better food than we would have had if it was left to the guards. The bread had weevils in it, it was like Rice Krispies, they would literally snap crackle and pop like space dust. I obsessed about food and would scrape up all the scraps and break into the kitchen at night to take and hoard food. I was convinced they would stop feeding us. I got caught and got a beating.
“There was nothing to do but lay in your bunk and listen to the noise of the dam. It cooled down in the winter but in the summer it was 45 degrees. It was laying there and thinking of England, like John McCarthy said of being held in Lebanon.
“We thought we would be executed or bombed. You just accepted that this could be it and you got used to living with that.”
Mr Manners was among the last of the hostages finally released on December 10, 1990. At the airport, bizarrely, the duty free shop was open, “perhaps to look as though life in Kuwait was normal,” says Mr Manners.
He stole a bottle of whiskey: “What were they going to do about it, deport me?”
He drunk the whiskey on the plane home back to Paris where he was living with his partner.
He said: “The next day I took the dog out but it took a good couple of years to get back to any normality. I could barely get on a crowded bus, it felt like I was in a goldfish bowl where it did not feel real.”
Mr Manners did not receive the compensation being offered by the United Nations due to the olume of paperwork and documents that had to be submitted, including his birth certificate and adoption papers which he did not have.
“There was nothing,” he said.
He looked after his friend until their death in 1992 and eventually went on to become a holiday rep before opening his business in London.
Mr Manners, who retired to Broadstairs just under three years ago, is still in touch with the dam engineer who fled persecution after the fall of Saddam Hussein and now lives in Australia with his family.
Mr Manners said: “He was seen as a Saddam acolyte but he was a million miles from that.”
Author Stephen Davis says the government statement is an “important victory” but dismissed most of it as “spin”
He added: “The statement expresses deep sympathy for those caught in the invasion but what the human shields want is the truth. My book Operation Trojan Horse describes in detail the secret mission to get a team of military operatives into Kuwait on BA149. It is a shame the government has chosen to repeat their 2007 ‘non denial’ denial of the mission. I have 16 named and unnamed sources confirming that there was a secret mission on BA149.”
Minister Liz Truss said: “The Government has 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.
“There was 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’.”
As a friend of Barry’s, it is right that his story is in the public domain. What he suffered should never have happened. He puts a value on each day and what we should and can do, that I admire but fall short of. I wish him satisfaction in that awful past, giving way to his many past, current and future successes.
A well written account of the debacle. A contrast to the government’s half truths and shambolic attempts at obfuscation
Barry – thank you for sharing your story and you should have had financial aid after.
More lies and spin from this Government.