Renewed efforts were under way to try to save the life of the last remaining British hostage in Iraq after the disclosure that two more of his bodyguards had died in captivity.
There had been unconfirmed reports for over a fortnight that the kidnappers – who had already murdered two of the men they had abducted – had let it be known that they had two more bodies. Yesterday it was disclosed that the dead men were almost certainly Alan McMenemy and Alec Maclachlan. In June, the remains of fellow security guards Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell were handed to the British embassy in Baghdad.
Senior diplomatic and defence sources say, however, that there has been no information to suggest that the fifth man taken, IT consultant Peter Moore, was dead. The Shia militia who abducted the men are said to have made a distinction between him and the four prisoners who were former members of the armed forces.
At a joint press conference with Hillary Clinton in Washingon yesterday, British foreign secretary David Miliband revealed that he believed Mr Moore was still alive. He added: "We are in contact with those who are in contact with the hostage-takers and all our efforts are working to ensure the safe release of that hostage."
According to one source, Mr Moore had been separated from his fellow hostages several months ago and, at one stage, was being held in a location outside Baghdad. The cause of death of Mr McMenemy, from Scotland, and Mr MacLachlan, from south Wales, is not yet known. It is believed, however, that they died around the same time as their colleagues.
The Independent has learned that Mr Swindlehurst, from Skelmersdale, Lancashire, and Mr Creswell, 39, originally from Glasgow, appeared to have been executed, suffering multiple gunshot wounds. Forensic examinations had shown 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. Communications seized up after that and British authorities insist there was no evidence to back the claim. But the families of Mr McMenemy and Mr Maclachlan have been told it is likely they are dead.
Yesterday, Gordon Brown said: "I can confirm that on 20 July, with great sadness, the Government informed two families of those British men kidnapped in Iraq that Alan McMenemy and Alec MacLachlan, two of the three hostages still held, were very likely to be dead. This is the worst of news, and my thoughts are with the families. I and the entire Government are committed to doing everything we can for the release of Peter Moore, whom we still believe to be alive. Hostage-taking is never justified and has no place in Iraq's future: I condemn it unreservedly, and once again call on the hostage-takers to release Peter Moore and give us clarity on the fates of Alec MacLachlan and Alan McMenemy."
The British government has a declared official policy of not negotiating with kidnappers, but unofficial talks had been held directly and indirectly with representatives of the abductors.
In the aftermath of the kidnapping, an SAS unit based in Baghdad mounted several raids alongside US and Iraqi forces. On at least two occasions, one in Sadr City and the other in Khadamiyah, the rescue party are said to have searched buildings just hours after the hostages were moved. There were questions on whether details of the missions were being leaked by renegades among the Iraqi forces.
The failure to save the lives of four of the hostages and the fate of the fifth one uncertain, there was renewed criticism of the British policy.
Graeme Moore, Peter's father, said: "There has been huge mishandling of the matter as can be seen by the latest sad deaths. We had been asked to keep quiet and let them handle the situation and the result is that four of the men are dead. I have no idea what has happened to Peter. All I can do is keep hoping and praying that he is alright. But the longer this goes on, the more desperately worrying it all becomes. I just hope there isn't a knock on the door one day and I get the bad news. But, as far as we know, he is still alive, and that is the hope we cling to."