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British hostage's relatives intensify efforts for release

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Relatives of British hostage Ken Bigley stepped up their campaign to save his life Wednesday, thanking his captors for the "opportunity to see him alive again" after a video aired showing Bigley shackled and sitting in a small cage.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said his government was doing everything it could to secure Bigley's release, including attempting to communicate directly with Tawhid and Jihad, the group led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that's holding Bigley.

"The difficulty is that ... these are outside people, they are not Iraqis," Blair told Britain's ITV television. "We are trying to make contact with them and we are doing everything we possibly can."

In Baghdad, a British official who asked not to be named said the government hadn't yet been successful in contacting the hostage takers.

"We're exploring the full range of contacts and channels of communication," said Victoria Whitford, a spokeswoman for the British Embassy in Baghdad. She refused further comment.

Bigley was kidnapped two weeks ago along with two Americans who were beheaded last week. He may face the same fate. But the fact that his captors haven't yet killed him has raised hopes that a deal may be struck for his release.

Bigley's younger brother Paul said the family had received a message from the kidnappers indicating that Bigley might be freed. Paul Bigley told ITV television he was "90 percent sure" that the message was legitimate. "The contents are a lot of political details, condemning this and condemning that, but the bottom line is that Ken will be spared," he said.

A radical Islamic Web site also said Bigley's release was imminent.

British officials were less certain. They noted that while the release of two Italian and 10 other hostages had contributed to an overall sense of optimism, none of those was being held by al-Zarqawi's group.

Still, the push to secure Bigley's release was bolstered by the videotape, which the Al-Jazeera network aired. On it, Bigley pleads with his government to negotiate. "Please, please, help me. I'm begging you, I'm begging you to speak, to push," he says.

Paul Bigley told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the images were "absolutely appalling" and "heart-wrenching." Another brother, Philip, thanked the "people holding Ken" for the "opportunity to see him alive again."

There were conflicting reports on the fate of two French reporters kidnapped more than a month ago. A hostage negotiator claimed he'd won their release, but the French government distanced itself from the claim, classifying it as "rumor."

Fighting and ambushes in towns south of Baghdad on Wednesday left at least seven Iraqis dead.

In Baqouba, north of Baghdad, three members of an Islamic party's armed militia were killed when they were attacked with small-arms fire and grenades. A party leader survived an assassination attempt in a separate incident.

In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi government troops continued attacking insurgent strongholds in Sadr City and along Haifa Street. There was no word on casualties.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.