BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A British hostage in Iraq pleaded for his life on Wednesday, but two Italian women held by another group were reported to have been killed.
In a video issued online by his captors, Kenneth Bigley begged British Prime Minister Tony Blair to have women prisoners in Iraq freed to save his life, but his family’s hopes that a deal might be done were quashed by U.S. and Iraqi officials.
“I need you to help me, Mr Blair, because you are the only person now on God’s earth that I can speak to,” Bigley said.
Britain said it had no contact with the kidnappers, would not negotiate and had little hope the 62-year-old contractor would be spared by Washington’s most wanted man in Iraq, al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Iraq said there were no plans to free one of two of Saddam Hussein’s weapons scientists, the only women Washington says it holds in Iraq, despite media speculation such a move might be imminent.
Another Islamist group, the Jihad Organization, said it had killed two female Italian hostages because Italy — like Britain a key U.S. ally in the war on Iraq — had not heeded its call to withdraw its forces.
Its statement was posted on an Internet site not often used by Iraqi militants and there was no confirmation of the claim. Most such claims have proven true in the past.
Aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta were seized on Sept. 7, the first Western women to be kidnapped in Iraq — where violence has raged on, with the latest suicide bombing on Wednesday killing 11 people.
With time running out for the British hostage, U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Wednesday they would not free female prisoners as demanded by Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group.
In the last two days the group has beheaded two American men seized with Bigley in Baghdad last week because its demand was not met by a given time. For Bigley, no deadline has been set.
His statement was the latest in a line of hostages’ appeals released to ensure maximum pressure on authorities and in this case was targeted straight, and very personally, at Blair.
“I need you to be compassionate as you always said you were, and help me, help me live so I can see my wife and my son and my mother and my brothers again,” Bigley said.
He wore orange overalls typical of U.S. jails and associated around the world with images of suspected Islamists detained at Guantanamo Bay.
LONDON WON’T BEND
Some such appeals have reached their goals in the past — Manila withdrew troops from Iraq to save the life of a Filipino truck driver — but seemed unlikely to do so this time.
“We cannot get into a situation, and I believe the family understand this, where we start bargaining with terrorists and kidnappers, because if we were to, we would not make Iraq or anywhere else safer,” said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
Even if Britons agree, the ordeal can only add to the strains for Blair, whose popularity has plummeted since he led Britain into the war last year.
“Ken: Save Me Tony,” ran the headline in Friday’s Sun, the country’s best-selling newspaper.
Bigley’s brother Paul clung to the hope the video was recent, telling Reuters: “The man is alive … This means we have some sort of a link.”
The body of American Jack Hensley was found by a road in Baghdad on Wednesday, which would have been his 49th birthday. He had been captured with Bigley and fellow American Eugene Armstrong, 52, the first of the three to be killed.
The CIA believes it was Zarqawi who sawed off Armstrong’s head in a video posted on the Internet on Monday. A video posted on Wednesday showed Hensley being beheaded.
The U.S. military has offered $25 million for information leading to the death or capture of Zarqawi, who has claimed responsibility for many of the bloodiest suicide attacks in Iraq.
Attention has focused on the two women scientists held — though Zarqawi, a Jordanian who analysts say seems bent on sending horrifying signals to Westerners through Internet videos of his beheadings, has never mentioned the two specifically.
“There are no immediate plans to release them,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said.
The detention of U.S.-held prisoners is under review and some may be due for release soon but Washington would be keen to ensure no such move is seen as a capitulation to the kidnappers.
A U.S. embassy spokesman said Taha and Huda Ammash, dubbed “Dr Germ” and “Mrs Anthrax” respectively by U.S. forces, were in the custody of multinational forces in Iraq, “and neither will be released imminently.”
Earlier Kassim Daoud, the Iraqi government’s national security adviser, had said Taha was one of three detainees who might be released conditionally by Iraqi judges for lack of evidence, but that this would not happen for some time.
In the latest in a wave of car bombings in the capital, a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle in a commercial street as dozens of men wanting to join Iraq’s new security forces queued to photocopy their documents. Would-be recruits have been repeatedly targeted by insurgents.
Hospital officials said 11 people were killed. (Additional reporting by Mussab al-Khairalla and Mariam Karouny in Baghdad and Miral Fahmy in Dubai)