A dramatic picture emerged yesterday of the desperate last hours of Ken Bigley, who evaded his captors only to be hunted down and beheaded.
The Liverpool engineer may have spent as much as a night on the run before being recaptured by militants, according to extraordinary eyewitness accounts from the town where he was held.
The Foreign Office last night refused to discuss reports of Mr Bigley's escape. However, Iraqi and US officials separately confirmed that the hostage had briefly evaded his captors.
The escape led his abductors, Jordanian born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group, to mount a frantic house-to-house search, according to local people in Latifiya, a town south-west of Baghdad. Armed fighters also set up road-blocks as they scoured the town for their victim.
Mr Bigley was eventually cornered, reportedly armed with a gun and in a change of clothing, in desolate farmland. There were conflicting reports about how long he had been free from his killers. Some suggested he had managed to evade capture for a night. Other "rebel sources" said it was only half-an-hour.
The decision to kill him was made soon after he was taken back to his makeshift prison and carried out quickly, according to sources claiming to know the kidnappers. A helper, believed to be one of the 10-strong gang who seized him, was also captured and shot dead.
The gang may have been panicked into the beheading amid fears that coalition forces were closing in on their secret location.
The militants took Mr Bigley hostage, along with two US colleagues, in Baghdad on 16 September. The Americans were beheaded the following week but the Briton's fate hung in the balance for weeks.
Tony Blair telephoned the Bigley family last night for the first time since his murder. Officials refused to disclose the content of the conversation.
In recent days, there appeared to be a measure of optimism. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday confirmed that the Government had exchanged messages with the gang through an intermediary whose identity diplomats have pledged never to reveal.
Although a senior British source insisted that there was never enough intelligence to mount an operation against the kidnappers, further details emerged yesterday of a major operation in Latifiya five days ago.
Accounts of his frantic escape bid came as the hostage's home city of Liverpool fell silent in a two-minute tribute yesterday.
In her first full statement since his death, Mr Bigley's Thai-born wife Sombat, 35, said: "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 mass in his honour was said at Liverpool's Roman Catholic cathedral on Friday night and books of condolence have been opened. The two-minute silence was observed at noon yesterday in churches, cathedrals, businesses and homes, and by around 200 people gathered at the Town Hall.
It was followed by the ringing of the municipal bell 62 times - one for each year of Mr Bigley's life.
Muslim leaders in Birmingham said yesterday that the tragedy could have been averted had Mr Blair pressed the American government to release two female Iraqi scientists - their condition for his release.
Speaking at an emergency press conference at Birmingham Central Mosque, the chairman, Dr Mohammad Naseem, criticised the British government for its lack of action.Reuse content