The agony of Kenneth Bigley

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The Independent Online

In chains, Kenneth Bigley stares in blank terror from a wire cage. His bound limbs force him into a half crouch while his voice falters and cracks.

First, he begs for negotiations to release Iraqi women prisoners. Then he begs for the well-being of his elderly mother. Lastly, he begs for his life.

From his neck to his ankles he is shackled by steel. Above him, in a row of three cages fashioned from grids of thick wire, hangs the starburst banner of his captors.

This was the image that Tawhid and Jihad, and its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, presented to the world yesterday as they released a grainy video of the British hostage pleading for mercy while caged and clothed like the detainees in Guantanamo Bay. In a four-minute recording, broadcast on the Arabic language news station al-Jazeera, and designed to maximise the pressure on Tony Blair, Mr Bigley, 62, is shown accusing the Prime Minister of lying - before imploring him to meet his captors' demands.

Dressed in an orange jumpsuit to mimic those worn by terror suspects held in the American prison camp, the civil engineer said: "Tony Blair is lying ... My life is cheap. He doesn't care about me."

The Briton then added: "Tony Blair, I am begging you for my life, I am begging you for my life. Have some compassion please.

"My captors do not want to kill me. They could have killed [me] a week, two, three weeks ago, whatever. All they want is their sisters out of prison." The release of the harrowing video later prompted Mr Blair to appeal to the kidnappers to contact the Government directly. While Mr Blair has repeatedly emphasised that there will be no negotiations with the kidnappers, he said last night that there would be an "immediate" response should they contact him.

The video broke a week-long silence from Tawhid and Jihad, which seized Mr Bigley and two American colleagues, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, a fortnight ago from their house in the Mansour district of western Baghdad. Mr Armstrong and Mr Hensley were beheaded within five days of their abduction.

The kidnappers have warned that the Briton will meet the same fate unless an unspecified number of Iraqi women prisoners are released from American captivity. But as Mr Bigley enters his 14th day of captivity, he finds himself at the mercy of a group willing to use him as the focus of a grotesque media campaign. Appearing gaunt and breaking down into tears, he is shown on the video at one point bowing his head into his right hand and pausing before he continues to deliver his plea.

He had been due to retire tomorrow. Mr Bigley said: "I want to go home. I want to go home. Please, Mr Blair, don't leave me here." The Bigley family issued a direct response to the hostage-takers, thanking them for the "opportunity to see him alive again". Mr Bigley's son, Craig, 33, said: "We, as a family, feel that the ultimate decision to release him rests with you, the people who are holding him. We once again ask you, please show mercy ... and release him."

The Foreign Office said the video appeared to confirm that the Briton was alive by referring to the hospitalisation of his mother, Lil, 86, and "negotiations" to secure the release of two French journalists.

Mr Blair described last night how the abduction made him feel "absolutely sick" as he made an unexpected appeal to the kidnappers to contact the government directly.

Speaking at a Muslim fringe meeting at Labour's annual conference, he said: "We cannot make contact with them. They have made no attempt to have any contact with us at all. Of course, if they did make contact, that is something we would immediately respond to. But if we don't know where they are and they are not making contact with us, it is impossible for us to make contact with them."

Referring to criticism from the Bigley family relating to his handling of the affair, he added: "I feel absolutely sick about what has happened. I feel desperately sorry for Ken Bigley and the whole of his family."

His comments came after he had reiterated his assurance that "everything possible" was being done to secure Mr Bigley's release, including trying to contact Tawhid and Jihad directly. While the Prime Minister hasrefused to negotiate with the terrorists, his comments hinted that some room for manoeuvre may be opening up. But last night a senior Labour Party official said: "We are not negotiating with the hostage takers. We are simply saying they should get in contact."

Yesterday's recording, released 24 hours after the Prime Minister made his keynote speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, only deepened the pressure on Mr Blair over his policy in Iraq.

It seemed that the Prime Minister would avoid a humiliating defeat today in a debate on a motion to order the early withdrawal of troops after ministers persuaded unions to back a compromise statement calling for UK forces to leave by the end of next year. Mr Straw and Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, met leaders of the "big four" unions yesterday to help avert a defeat for Mr Blair.

Kenneth Bigley: 'MY LIFE IS CHEAP'

I would like to inform my British citizens that there is no progress or negotiations to save my life, nor negotiations to end the humiliations which Iraqi women prisoners are subjected to in Iraqi prisons.

"Tony Blair is lying.

"He is lying when he says he is negotiating. He is not negotiating.

"My life is cheap. He doesn't care about me.

"Please, please help me and help Iraqi mothers.

"Mr Blair says he won't negotiate with terrorists.

"The French are negotiating with those people to secure the release of hostages.

"I am begging you to speak, put pressure, Mr Blair, to help me.

"My mother is in hospital. They told me that my mother is in hospital and that you want to help her.