BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Saturday they will begin handing weapons over to Iraqi police next week in a major step toward ending weeks of fighting with American soldiers in Baghdad's Sadr City district.
Meanwhile, there were reports that British hostage Kenneth Bigley tried to escape before he was beheaded. Grisly footage of the killing was sent to an Arab television station Friday.
A senior al-Sadr aide, Ali Smeisem, said the handover of medium and heavy weapons would start Monday at three police stations in Sadr City and last for five days. As a confidence-building measure, he said, the government was suspending raids and harassment of al-Sadr's followers in the sprawling slum, which is home to more than 2 million people.
The announcement came after weeks of talks between Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's interim government, tribal leaders and members of al-Sadr's movement.
The government wants to restore enough security in Sadr City and other insurgent strongholds for national elections to take place in January. Similar negotiations are under way with representatives of rebel-held Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim bastion west of the capital.
Al-Sadr's movement is still pressing for guarantees that the government will stop pursuing militia members, release the cleric's detained followers and compensate residents for losses suffered during the fighting. But Smeisem said the movement was willing to wait for an agreement on those points.
Al-Sadr has not pledged to disband his militia, a key U.S. and Iraqi government demand. But American and Iraqi authorities are eager to restore peace in as many areas of the country as possible without major bloodshed.
Meanwhile, a masked gunman claiming to be familiar with Bigley's kidnappers told The Associated Press that the hostage managed to elude his 10 guards Thursday. The kidnappers went house to house looking for him, the man said Saturday. Bigley was found the next morning in a deserted area, carrying a gun, he said.
Bigley was killed soon after, the gunman said.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told British Broadcasting Corp. radio Saturday he could not confirm those reports.
In Bigley's northern England hometown of Liverpool, residents observed a day of mourning Saturday, with flags on municipal buildings flying at half-staff.
U.S. officials received ``credible'' reports that Bigley tried to escape with the help of one of his captors, an official in Washington said Friday on condition of anonymity. There was no word on the fate of Bigley's reported accomplice. Officials in Baghdad refused to comment.
Bigley's Thai widow pleaded for privacy Saturday as she grieved.
``No words can express the agony I feel for the loss of my husband, Ken. He was a good man and a loving, caring husband. He went to Iraq to help the Iraqi people,'' a tearful Sombat Bigley said in a videotaped message shown at the British Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand.
Bigley, a 62-year-old civil engineer who worked on an American base, was the first British hostage killed in Iraq and at least the 28th overall.
Video footage sent to Abu Dhabi TV showed Bigley kneeling in front of six masked gunmen, according to a witness who saw the CD. One militant, speaking in Arabic, declared the Briton would be slain because his government refused to release women prisoners detained in Iraq.
The speaker then pulled a knife from his belt and severed Bigley's head as three others pinned him down, said the witness, who spoke on condition he not be identified. The tape ended with the killer holding up the severed head.
Abu Dhabi TV did not broadcast the footage, saying it refused ``to serve as a mouthpiece for such groups or their actions.''
U.S. and British officials in Iraq declined to confirm Bigley's death, saying his body had not been found. However, Bigley's brother, Phil, said the family had received ``absolute proof'' of his death.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Friday that messages were exchanged with Bigley's kidnappers through an intermediary in Iraq in recent days. But he said the militants refused to drop their demands even though they were aware there were no women in British custody in Iraq.
There were also rumors of a rescue attempt. But when asked by reporters to comment on them, Straw said: ``I'm afraid I can't, no.''
A Western official in Baghdad dismissed the rumors, saying they had never established where Bigley was being held and therefore no rescue was planned.
Iraq's most feared terrorist group, al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad, seized Bigley from his Baghdad home Sept. 16 along with Americans Eugene Armstrong, 52, and Jack Hensley, 48. The Americans were beheaded days later.
More than 150 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, some for ransom and others as leverage against the United States and its allies. Many Iraqis also have been seized, in most cases for money.
In violence Saturday, U.S. troops clashed with unidentified gunmen in Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold 70 miles west of Baghdad. One Iraqi was killed and five were wounded, the city hospital said. The U.S. military had no immediate information on the incident.
About six miles east of Ramadi, a car bomb exploded as an American convoy passed on the road to Fallujah, police said. One Humvee was damaged, but there were no reports of casualties, police 1st Lt. Ahmed al-Dulaimi said.
The military said a rocket-propelled grenade fired by insurgents disabled a U.S. patrol's Humvee near Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, an area that has been relatively peaceful in recent months. There were no casualties.
South of the capital, about 20 masked insurgents pulled up in front of the local council building in Iskandriyah in four cars, told employees to leave the building and then blew it up. No casualties were reported in the incident 30 miles south of Baghdad.
The U.S. command said American and Iraqi forces foiled a car bombing in the northern city of Mosul and detained 14 suspected insurgents in raids north and west of the city Friday. Soldiers also detained three suspected insurgents late Friday south of Samarra, the military said.