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British hostage Kenneth Bigley killed by captors

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who pleaded tearfully last month for Prime Minister Tony Blair to meet his kidnappers' demands, was beheaded by his captors, his brother said Friday.

``We can confirm that the family has now received absolute proof that Ken Bigley was executed by his captors,'' Phil Bigley said in a statement he read on national television in Britain.

``The family here in Liverpool believe that our government did everything it possibly could to secure the release of Ken in this impossible situation.''

But another brother, Paul, said Blair has ``blood on his hands.'' He made the comment in a written statement to the Stop the War Coalition, an activist group in Britain that opposes the conflict.

A witness who saw a videotape sent to Abu Dhabi TV said it showed six hooded, armed men standing behind the kneeling Bigley, whom the witness recognized from two previous tapes released by the kidnappers in which he pleaded for his life.

One of the six then spoke in Arabic for about a minute, saying they planned to carry out ``the sentence of execution against this hostage'' because the British government ``did not meet our demand'' to release Iraqi women detained by the U.S.-led command in Iraq.

Afterward, the speaker took a knife from his belt and severed Bigley's head as three others held him down, the witness said on condition of anonymity. The tape ended with the killer holding up the severed head.

The U.S. military in Iraq said it had not found Bigley's body.

``We're aware of the reports but can give no further information,'' a spokesman for Blair's office said.

Cabinet minister Patricia Hewitt told Sky TV, ``We cannot get into the business of negotiating with terrorists, with hostage takers, with these evil people who have inflicted such appalling suffering already on Ken Bigley and his family.''

Bigley's 86-year-old mother, Lil, who has been treated at a hospital emergency room several times during the crisis, was at the family home in Liverpool on Friday, with her sons Stan, 65, and Philip, 49.

A policewoman was stationed outside the house amid a swarm of TV cameras and reporters.

Abu Dhabi TV said it had the video showing Bigley's beheading but decided not to air it.

Bigley, 62, was abducted Sept. 16 along with two Americans from their home in the upscale Mansour neighborhood by members of Tawhid and Jihad, Iraq's most feared terrorist group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The two Americans _ Eugene Armstrong, 52, and Jack Hensley, 48 _ were beheaded a few days later.

``It could be that the fate of Ken, Eugene and Jack was sealed from day one. We will never know,'' Phil Bigley said.

Two videos surfaced last month showing Bigley begging Blair to save his life by meeting his captors' demands.

Early Friday, American warplanes struck a building in rebel-held Fallujah where the U.S. command said leaders of al-Zarqawi's network were meeting. A doctor said the attack killed 13 people, including a groom on his wedding night, and wounded 17 others.

The U.S. command said ``credible intelligence sources'' reported terrorist leaders were meeting at the targeted house in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad.

The report of Bigley's death came a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi hinted there might be progress in efforts to secure his release.

Kidnappers have abducted more than 150 people in Iraq this year. Most hostages have been freed, but at least 27 have been killed.

Some kidnapping groups seek political objectives such as the withdrawal of foreign forces or companies from Iraq in a bid to undermine the U.S.-backed interim government, while others demand ransom money.

The attack in Fallujah was among a dozen ``precision strikes'' launched since last month against al-Zarqawi's network. Besides claiming to have kidnapped and beheaded foreign hostages, the group is also believed to be behind mortar attacks, suicide bombings and shooting sprees that have killed scores in recent months.

The U.S. military said those strikes dealt a ``significant blow'' to al-Zarqawi's movement, killing several key figures, including chief lieutenant Mohammed al-Lubnani and spiritual adviser Abu Anas al-Shami.

Dr. Ahmed Saeed said his hospital in Fallujah received 13 dead, including the groom, and 17 wounded, including the bride. He said most of the injured were female relatives of the groom who were staying at the house after the wedding.

Mohammed Jawad, who lives next door, said he had just moved into the central neighborhood to escape repeated shelling on Fallujah's outskirts. His brother and six nephews were killed in the strike.

``This attack shows that there is no safe place in Fallujah, and the Americans are not differentiating between civilians and armed men,'' Jawad said in tears, as he was treated for shrapnel wounds to his face and hand.

American and Iraqi authorities are trying to curb the growing insurgency in Baghdad and elsewhere so national elections can take place by Jan. 31. Some U.S. military officials have expressed doubt that balloting will be possible in all parts of the country.

Late Thursday, three rockets struck Baghdad's Sheraton Hotel crowded with foreign contractors and journalists, shattering windows and sparking small fires. There were no serious injuries.

Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said the rockets were fired from the back of a truck. A fourth blew up inside the vehicle, he said, and security guards responded with gunfire.

Earlier, a mortar shell exploded in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone across the Tigris River from the hotel compound. There was no report of damage or casualties.

Acting on a tip, Task Force Baghdad soldiers stopped a truck carrying more than 1,500 155-mm artillery rounds Thursday one of the largest seizures to date, U.S. command said. The driver and passengers were detained.

Allawi's administration has been talking with representatives from insurgency hotspots, including the radical Shiite stronghold Sadr City in the northeast of the capital.

An aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr offered Thursday to disarm his Mahdi Army militia in a move that could bring an end to weeks of fighting in Sadr City. The government cautiously welcomed the offer and suggested other militant groups also lay down their arms.

A spokesman for al-Sadr also offered to hand over medium and heavy weapons and cooperate with Iraqi security forces if the government will stop pursuing militia members and release the cleric's detained followers.

The offer by Ali Smeisem on Al-Arabiya television contained no explicit promise to disband the militia, as demanded by U.S. and Iraqi authorities. However, a senior security official, Qassim Dawoud, cautiously welcomed the proposal and urged other armed groups to lay down their arms.
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