A body believed to be of one of the British hostages killed in Iraq has been handed over to the UK embassy in Baghdad by the captors.
It is said to be either Alan McMenemy or Alec MacLachlan who, it is feared, were among four of the five captives taken in July 2007 to be murdered. According to defence and diplomatic sources the state of the body shows the victim has been dead for a while and may have been interred. Forensic tests will be needed to establish the body's identity.
There is no reason to suppose, the sources say, that the last of the five Britons taken by the gunmen, IT consultant Peter Moore, is not alive.
The bodies of two men who were shot dead, fellow security guards Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell, have already been returned to the UK.
A Downing Street spokesman said Gordon Brown was "deeply saddened" by the news. He said the Prime Minister would "leave no stone unturned in the Government's efforts to secure the release of the remaining hostages".
The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said it was not possible to "definitively confirm" the identity of the victim. But he added: "My thoughts and those of all of my colleagues in Government are, of course, with the families of the British men kidnapped in Iraq."
Peter Moore's father, Graeme, said last night: "This is another sad episode in this very sad situation and unfortunately it reminds us that the Government's policy on this matter has failed. I am very, very sorry for the family of this poor man and cling to the reassurance that it is not Peter. We also cling to hope that it is not Peter.
"Nothing will bring back these boys, but when all this is over, and Peter is back home safe, I hope a proper inquiry is held into what went on."
According to one source, Mr Moore had been separated from his fellow hostages several months ago and, at one stage, was being held outside Baghdad.
Mr Swindlehurst, from Skelmersdale, Lancashire, and Mr Creswell, 39, originally from Glasgow, suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Forensic examinations found no signs they had been ill or were being starved.
The kidnappers, who belong to a group calling itself Asaib al-Haq, or the Band of the Righteous, are believed to have indicated in mid-July that they were prepared to hand over two more bodies. The British government has a declared official policy of not negotiating with kidnappers.