Still they wait. Still they hope. And still they fight

The family who refused to be silenced keep up the pressure

Whenever a Briton is in trouble abroad, the traditional Foreign Office advice to his or her family back home is to say nothing and let the matter be handled with the minimum of publicity. It was no different in the case of Kenneth Bigley.

As soon as the 62-year-old expatriate engineer and two American colleagues were seized by gunmen in Baghdad on 16 September, officialdom descended on the Liverpool house of his 86-year-old mother, Lil, to urge discretion. By Friday, however, the British embassy in Baghdad was distributing 50,000 leaflets containing an appeal from the Bigley family. Printed on plain white paper, they carried no official letterhead.

As mediators from the Muslim Council of Britain arrived yesterday in Baghdad to seek Mr Bigley's release, Arabic satellite channels in the Middle East were reporting a plea for mercy from the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. Terry Waite, who spent nearly five years as a hostage in Lebanon, had joined the campaign. Even a Palestinian imprisoned for more than three years without trial under Britain's anti-terrorism laws has appealed to the kidnappers to spare their victim.

All this appeared to have happened as the result of the Bigley family seizing the initiative. The "usual channels" have been bypassed, and the sons of a Liverpool home- help have largely forced the Government to follow their lead. Whether their efforts will save Mr Bigley is far from clear; his most outspoken brother, Paul, who lives in the Netherlands, claims that they have prolonged his life.

Tony Blair has now found himself in a political nightmare. For the past week he has been caught between the kidnappers' leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the most ruthless terrorists to exploit the chaos created by the invasion of Iraq, and a family determined to do anything that might extricate a loved one from his terrible plight. As soon as it became clear that the Briton had been seized by Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group, there seemed to be little hope for him. But the way the crisis has unfolded has made Mr Blair look unimaginative as well as impotent.

Last Saturday, understandably, the Prime Minister said little in response to the video showing the three Westerners were in Tawhid and Jihad's hands. By Monday, however, the decapitation of the first American hostage, Eugene Armstrong, had been posted on the internet. The killers were demanding the release of Muslim women held in Iraqi jails, but the authorities said there were just two: both scientists suspected of working on chemical and biological weapons.

At this the Bigley family broke its silence. Craig Bigley, Kenneth's 33-year-old son by his first marriage, said in an emotional appeal on television: "I ask Tony Blair personally to consider the amount of bloodshed already suffered. Please meet the demands and release my father - two women for two men. Only you can save him now." That brought a telephone call from the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to offer reassurance that that "everything possible" was being done.

On Tuesday, Mr Blair, apparently stung by the angry criticism of a family desperate to do "something, anything", was on the telephone. He explained the "limitations" on his ability to end their ordeal. But from the Netherlands, Paul Bigley raised the emotional and political temperature, blaming the Prime Minister's policies in Iraq, calling him a "fibber" and threatening to hound him from office: "If I lose my brother, Blair has to go."

Another brother, Philip, criticised the Prime Minister for appearing at Euston station in London on Monday for the launch of Virgin's high-speed train service to Manchester. "Mr Blair was posing with Richard Branson over a train that cuts 14 minutes off a journey to London," he said. "He should have been devoting that time to saving Ken's life."

The family's desperation increased with the murder of the second American hostage, Jack Hensley. With would-be mediators apparently unable to contact the kidnappers, the only way of communicating was over TV channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. On Wednesday, there was a response for the first time. In an 11-minute video posted on the internet, Kenneth appealed directly to the Prime Minister to save him. Not only did it raise the emotional pressure on Downing Street yet further, the kidnappers' manipulation of their victim prised open a crack between the US and the interim government it had installed in Baghdad.

The Iraqi Justice Minister, Malik Dohan al-Hassan, announced on Tuesday that Rihab Taha, known as "Dr Germ", one of the two women scientists in custody, would be freed on bail. The case of the other - Huda Ammash, or "Mrs Anthrax" - was "under discussion", he said. But both women are held by the Americans as "high-value" suspects, and the US embassy in Baghdad rapidly made it clear that they would stay in detention, causing Paul Bigley to accuse Washington of "snookering" developments that could have helped his brother.

Britain and the US continued to insist that negotiation with terrorists was out of the question. The problem for Mr Blair was that the British media normally agree to a news blackout when a hostage is taken in this country, but this crisis was being played out on the 24-hour news channels. And the Bigley family were proving to be masters of the news agenda. "They've had no advice from PR people or professionals of any sort," said a friend. "When things like this happen, you find depths you didn't know you had."

By Thursday, when Kenneth's Thai second wife, Sombat, and his mother both made televised statements, Mr Straw had been in touch with the Bigleys five times and Mr Blair twice. Both men reiterated that to give in to the hostage-takers' demands would only increase the number of kidnappings. But Paul Bigley appears to have decided to bypass London altogether, enlisting support in Ireland, where Lil Bigley was born.

Whitehall sources insist that much is happening behind the scenes. But there are few leads, and little indication that Zarqawi is interested in anything but exploiting the situation for propaganda.

This is likely to be Mr Blair's answer to the argument that British governments have insisted in the past that they will never talk to terrorists, only for it to emerge later that they have done just that. But the crisis has once again confronted the British public with his responsibility for our presence in Iraq.

If it ends as badly as everyone fears, he will have trouble escaping blame, even if it would be fairer to apportion most of it to the terrorists.

'We want to show them we're thinking of Ken'

By Ian Herbert, North of England Correspondent

In the three and a half hours of morale-boosting reassurance delivered in the Bigley family's terraced home in Liverpool yesterday, the former Beirut hostage Terry Waite had one overriding message: that nothing Kenneth was going through could quite compare with their own ordeal.

After inviting Mr Waite to their home, the family were particularly keen to hear how his family had coped - and heard that nothing was tougher than waiting in blind hope. "My wife and children had five years of it. It eases off after a while. I was able to say to them, maintain hope in this situation," he said. "It's never over till it's over."

Mr Waite, who drew on the experiences of nearly five years in captivity in Lebanon to counsel the Bigleys, said he had also told them: "When you are a hostage and you stand at the point of death you somehow find inner strength. I am pretty sure that Ken will find that." Mr Waite seemed genuinely surprised by the resolve of Mr Bigley's 86-year-old mother, Lil, who - at her own request - left the house by ambulance for the local hospital half an hour before his 3.50pm departure. "There's something about the spirit of the Liverpool people which never gives in quickly and isn't easily defeated. That's well demonstrated in the old lady, in particular," he said.

Outside, in Bedford Street, Walton, the locals remain unsure whether it was appropriate to bring flowers to the terraced house where Mr Bigley's relatives pass each day. They steel themselves for the hours, between 6pm and 9pm, when their fear that last week's evening executions will be repeated is at its most raw.

Bouquets arrived periodically yesterday, along with cards and a poster brought by a mother and child. Mr Bigley's period in captivity reaches its 11th day today but the importance of his release to the people of Liverpool seems still to be growing. "We don't even know what he looks like from those grainy video pictures but we want those people in there to know we'll do anything we can to show them we're thinking of Ken," said a woman who was one of 300 visitors at a candlelit vigil in the city's Catholic cathedral on Friday night.

The absence here of the shrines and street posters of Baghdad captives Simona Pari and Simona Torretta that adorned the streets of Italy in similar circumstances last week is curious. This, after all, is the city that tends to wear its heart on its sleeve - and certainly did when several of its own were held captive by Saddam Hussein while undertaking work on one of his palaces in the 1980s.

It seems the image of Ken Bigley as a true Liverpudlian was hammered home only when, in a fading Merseyside accent, he mentioned his native city six times when publicly pleading for his life, four days ago. Why had he talked so much of a city he left decades ago? In a word - "roots", his brother Paul told The Independent on Sunday yesterday.

Now, Liverpudlians' biggest concern is how they can make up for lost time. "We want that family to know how we feel. It's as simple as that," said Tracey Edward, 32, shopping in Walton yesterday.

The Rev Trevor Latham, whose church dominates the view down Bedford Street, has held off staging further candlelit vigils out of deference to the Bigleys' local Catholic church. So when his church was opened for an organ recital on Thursday night people just wandered in and lit candles. The first event outside of Walton - staged by the Stop the War coalition - was resisted by many because they do not want to see the crisis politicised.

"The lack of events has bred a restlessness. People are asking: 'What can we do to help the Bigley family?'" said Roger Phillips, whose daily morning BBC phone-in show is required listening for thousands of Merseysiders.

For now, most also want to divorce politics from the simple issue of "helping to free Ken". "There's an element in this city which is angry about our going to war in Iraq," said Mr Phillips. "But when I get one listener saying Ken Bigley would not be in this position if Tony Blair had not taken us to war, I'll get many others calling to say the two issues must be separated. The real political backlash might occur if something actually happens to Ken."

Liverpool's leaders are also guarding against an anti-Islamic backlash, should this hostage crisis end in tragedy. Informal plans are already in place for an ecumenical cathedral service to prevent the city's small, 15,000 Muslim population being alienated if Mr Bigley is killed.

In an attempt to engender a greater understanding of the faith, leaders of the Anglican and Catholic churches in Walton have quoted the Koran - hardly a common text in the mono-cultural criss-cross of terraced streets where Mr Bigley grew up.

SEVEN DAYS OF ANGUISH

Sunday

Dean McLoughlin, a Foreign Office Arabic-speaker, appeals on al-Arabiya television for help in freeing hostages. Tony Blair meets Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, in London

Monday

The Prime Minister poses at Euston with Richard Branson for the launch of a new high-speed train. Philip Bigley says later: "He should be devoting his time to saving the life of my brother"

Tuesday

Craig Bigley, Kenneth's son, tells Blair: "Consider the amount of bloodshed already suffered ... Only you can save him now." He is flanked by his uncles, Stanley and Philip

Wednesday

After the beheading of the two Americans, Kenneth Bigley is seen in a second video. Speaking for 11 minutes, he breaks down as he implores Mr Blair to act to save his life

Thursday

In Thailand, Sombat, Kenneth Bigley's second wife, pleads for his release. His mother, Lil, makes a similar appeal from Liverpool, and later collapses from strain

Friday

The British embassy in Baghdad gives out 50,000 leaflets with Kenneth's picture and a call from his family for help. The leaflets have no official British letterhead

Saturday

With her son's fate still in the balance, Lil Bigley, 86, is rushed to hospital a second time. Two leaders of the Muslim Council of Britain arrive in Baghdad

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