The life and death of Kenneth Bigley

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The Independent Online

Up to the end, they had clung to hope and had shunned despair, pleading calmly and with dignity to the kidnappers. For 22 days, in public and behind the scenes, Ken Bigley's family laboured so hard; fighting an unceasing battle across the airwaves and through all diplomatic channels to secure their over-riding ambition ­ an unlikely happy ending.

Just before noon yesterday, Paul Bigley was buoyed by reports that his elder brother had been handed over from a bunch of murderous ideologues to gangsters willing to accept a ransom. "If this is the case, moving from a political situation to a monetary situation, that's a little bit of optimism," he said.

Less than an hour afterwards, the glimmer that had sustained the Bigleys through three weeks of agony was extinguished. There was to be no miracle for Ken Bigley.

A sombre presenter on Abu Dhabi television delivered a short statement, quoting "informed sources". After three weeks of captivity, the 62-year-old civil engineer had, it said, been killed.

By late afternoon, it was confirmed Mr Bigley that had been killed on Thursday night in a Sunni stronghold 22 miles south-west of Baghdad. The British government had apparently known about it late on Thursday.

The ordeal that has put an ordinary Liverpudlian family under a global spotlight was concluded in two minutes of videotape. In the familiar format of grainy digital footage, six hooded kidnappers from the Tawhid and Jihad group (Unity and Holy War) stood around Mr Bigley as he knelt on the floor. He was dressed in the same orange jumpsuit, a parody of the clothing worn by Guantanamo Bay detainees, and which he wore a week earlier to make a shaking, desperate 11-minute plea to Tony Blair for his life.

This time, it was to his captors themselves ­ led by the Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi ­ that Mr Bigley begged for his life, turning to them in front of the black and gold sunburst banner of Tawhid and Jihad.

One of the captors then spoke in Arabic for a minute. Adopting the rhetoric of men who like to call themselves "God's soldiers," the kidnapper announced he planned to carry out "the sentence of execution against this hostage".

The man then took a knife from his belt and stepped forward to decapitate Mr Bigley. Three others held him down.

Blaming the British Government, the man who drew the knife said the killing was because London "did not meet our demand" to release Iraqi women held in American-controlled prisons.

Two weeks ago, similar videos were posted on Islamic websites showing the killing of two Americans abducted on 16 September from west Baghdad with Mr Bigley ­ Eugene Armstrong, 52, and 48-year-old Jack Hensley.

Last night, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, revealed that, despite repeated refusals to negotiate, the Government had exchanged messages with the kidnappers but they had not moved on their demands.

Mr Straw said: "It was clearly in Mr Bigley's interests that we should do all we could to make contact. Messages were exchanged with the hostage-takers in an attempt to dissuade them from carrying out the threat to kill Mr Bigley. But at no stage did they abandon their demands."

Mr Blair, speaking from Chequers, said: "I feel desperately sorry for Ken Bigley and his family who have behaved with extraordinary dignity and courage. I feel utter revulsion at the people who did this, not just the barbaric nature of the killing but the way, frankly, they played the situation in the past few weeks.''

The family is split on how the Government handled the affair. Philip Bigley, 49, who has spent most of the past three weeks with his mother Lil, 86, at her home in Walton, said: "The family here in Liverpool believes that our government did all it possibly could to secure the release of Ken in this impossible situation. We will always remember Ken for his love, compassion and, above all, his Liverpool sense of humour. He was a truly wonderful father, husband, brother and son. The horror of these final days will haunt us for ever."

But Paul Bigley, 55, said: "We tried everything we could but it was not enough. I will always believe there was one man who could have done more. But he didn't. Mr Blair has blood on his hands."

If fate had not intervened, Mr Bigley would have been spending yesterday tending to his mango plantation and rice paddies in a corner of rural Thailand. He was also looking forward to being a grandfather to his son Craig's baby, due in February. He was to have retired a week ago. After 10 years spent among the desert architecture of places such as Dubai and Qatar, working for Gulf Supplies and Commercial Services, Mr Bigley, who loved the Middle East, was increasingly preoccupied with preparations for a retirement to south-east Asia.

Every day, he called his Thai wife, Sombat, 35, from his home in Baghdad to discuss their plans ­ the new villa near her parents, their life together after nearly a year of separation and the opening of a small shop to support them in their life.

Born in Liverpool, and brought up in the home where his family endured the agonising wait, Mr Bigley had always had a wanderlust. After marrying his first wife, Margaret, a childhood sweetheart, and serving an apprenticeship with a precision engineering firm, he paid a £10 "Pom's passage" to emigrate to Australia and then New Zealand.

He enjoyed a successful life running engineering firms there but, when Margaret's father fell ill, the couple, now with two young sons, returned. He ran a couple of supermarkets on Merseyside for a time, and then moved to start a new life as a landlord of the Rodney Stoke Inn in rural Somerset.

His happiness was destroyed when his 17-year-old son, Paul, riding on his bike to pay his savings into his bank account, was struck by a lorry. He suffered severe head injuries, and, a week later, his father was left with no option but to turn off his life support machine.

His marriage fell apart under the strain, and Mr Bigley turned to his brother Paul to provide him with a new direction. Within six months, Ken was working in the Gulf state of Qatar. Speaking before his brother's death, Paul said: "The Middle East agreed with Ken. He enjoyed its culture and its people. It was for that reason he decided to go to Iraq when most others would have said, no thanks."

It was while working in Dubai eight years ago that Mr Bigley went for a holiday to Bangkok. There he met Sombat, a bakery worker. After a week together, Mr Bigley returned to the Gulf, but Sombat was determined to stay in touch. They exchanged letters for a year, and Mr Bigley returned to Thailand and proposed.

Sombat said: "Ken is a nice, kind-hearted man with a wonderful sense of humour. He transformed my struggling and lonely life into one of happiness."

Three years ago, the couple decided to build a house in the village of Sorathavorn, close to the Thai-Cambodian border. A new villa was completed recently. Paul Bigley said: "Ken's idea was to retire to this estate. He was ready for the quiet life. They found this plantation together. It was the place that Ken expected to see out his days."

Instead, Ken died in the town of Latifiyah, a dusty, sun-baked stronghold of the Sunni insurgency against the American-led occupation and Iraq's US-backed government, 22 miles south-west of Baghdad. Yesterday, American and Iraqi troops were trawling the streets there, as they have been for several days. One theory is that Mr Bigley was killed because the abductors were alarmed by the military activity.

Mr Bigley knew his family were worried about the possibility of kidnapping and he told them a white lie: that he was staying within the heavily fortified Green Zone, and would be safe. Instead, he stayed in a rented house in the wealthy Baghdad district of Mansour with two American colleagues for eight months.

On 16 September, just after dawn at the grey two-storey house near the busy al-Mansour intersection, the electricity failed. It seemed like just another power cut. It was, instead, an ambush. One of the occupants emerged from behind the barred front door to start up the large yellow generator standing on the pavement. Two of 10 masked kidnappers, who had earlier alighted from a minivan armed with Kalashnikov rifles, grabbed the man, bundling him into the waiting vehicle.

Other abductors rushed into the walled gardens of the house through a side gate. Within minutes, the two other men had been pulled from the house. One was wearing just his underwear as members of the gang shouted in Iraqi Arabic, "keep calm" and "lift him".

What followed was a danse macabre of international terrorism and diplomacy played out across the world's television screens. The three colleagues from the Qatar-based construction firm had fallen into the hands of the extremist Islamist group which has used the most horrific violence ­ from beheadings to car bombings recorded on video ­ to make it the most feared player in Iraq's anti-American insurgency.

Within five days, Mr Armstrong and Mr Hensley had been beheaded and the details of their killings released on video.

But whatever the circumstances of a crime that saw three more names added to the list of 103 hostages being held in Iraq, the nationalities of its victims meant it was always going to have wide ramifications.

The sense of dread that followed the abductions was deepened when, after 48 hours of silence, the kidnappers broke their silence using what was to become their most effective weapon in a campaign to torture relatives and underline the impotence of governments in London and Washington.

On Saturday 18 September, a video was delivered to the offices of the pan-Arabic television news station al-Jazeera, showing the three men on their knees blindfolded with pieces of roughly torn white fabric while a kidnapper, shrouded in black, read from a sheet of paper.

Each of the hostages gave his name and place of origin in turn ­ Bigley, from Liverpool; Armstrong, from Michigan; Hensley, from Georgia ­ before the captors delivered their demand; the release of "all Iraqi female prisoners" being held in two American-run prisons, Abu Ghraib and Umm Qasr.

Failure to do this within 48 hours would lead to the killing of one of the prisoners, the kidnappers warned.

Officials in Washington and London gave the first of many assurances that everything was being done to locate the men while maintaining that there could be no negotiations with the kidnappers. Anonymous officials in both capitals underlined that there were only two Iraqi women being held in US custody and they were not in the named jails. The Foreign Office declared itself "baffled".

The women were Rihab Rashid Taha and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, both weapons scientists under the regime of Saddam Hussein and likely to be of little interest to Tawhid and Jihad. But shortly after 7pm on the Monday after the kidnappings, the response of the kidnappers came and it left no doubt about the barbarity ­ and the media savvy ­ of Tawhid and Jihad. A message was posted on the forum of an Islamist website from a contributor who had previously made an announcement about the group saying that one of the Americans had been killed.

Within an hour, a video was placed on the same website. It showed five members of the group standing in front of Mr Armstrong. After reading a statement, one balaclava-clad member stepped forward, gripped the American's hair and cut his throat with a knife until the head was severed.

The killer ­ claimed by the CIA to have been identified from voice patterns ­ is alleged to have been Zarqawi himself. A further video, following a similar pattern, was posted shortly afterwards showing the killing of Mr Hensley on his 49th birthday.

The next day, Mr Bigley was videoed begging for his life and asking Tony Blair to intercede. On the 13th day of his imprisonment, Mr Bigley was seen in a new video, caged and chained. Exhausted and terrified, he once more pleaded with Mr Blair to come to his aid.

There had been speculation Mr Bigley would be executed 11 days ago, just before Mr Blair was due to address Labour's party conference, for the captors have proved extremely adept at adopting tactics for maximum political impact. When that passed, hope began to grow. Ireland stepped into the fray, issuing a passport to Mr Bigley, whose mother was born in County Dublin. Its government figured its neutrality in the war might give the captors a get-out clause.

With grotesque irony, the Iraqi interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, indicated on Thursday that there had been apparent progress towards securing Mr Bigley's freedom, saying: "There are certainly areas which are quite good."

In the end, Zarqawi was not prepared to listen to anyone ­ from Lil Bigley, who was admitted to hospital three times during the ordeal, to a delegation of visiting British Muslims and figures as diverse as Yasser Arafat, Gerry Adams and Muammar Gaddafi.

In Liverpool last night, one friend said: "We always knew we were dealing with monsters. The terrible thing is that Ken and two other men were trying to put right the conditions which allows these men to thrive. Instead, they fell into their hands.''

For the 23 days of Mr Bigley's captivity, most Liverpudlians have been anxious to keep politics out of their desire to "Bring Ken home". Now, all that has changed. "I have backed Blair before but not again," said John Williams, 34, a builder. "If that was Blair's son they would have done everything they could to get him out."

Some were concerned that the killing could damage Britain's reputation for tolerance. "All the major cities in England have Iraqi students. There could be a lot of trouble. There's more of them [in this country] than anywhere else," said Frank Duda, 46, the manager of a furniture shop. Margaret, 62, added: "I think a backlash [against Muslims] has to be a worry. I just hope people are sensible and do not get into all that [antagonism].

"Ken was still a Scouser at heart. You never leave your roots do you?"


TONY BLAIR: "I feel desperately sorry for Kenneth Bigley and his family, who have behaved with extraordinary dignity and courage. I feel utter revulsion at the people that did this.

"And I feel a strong sense that the actions of these people ... should not prevail over people like Kenneth Bigley, who after all, only wanted to make Iraq and the world a better place."

PAUL BIGLEY: "Please stop this war and prevent other lives being lost. It is illegal and has to stop. Mr Blair has blood on his hands."

PHIL BIGLEY: "How we all as individuals handle crisis situations differ ... It is important to be considerate of one another's view. The family here in Liverpool believe our government did everything it possibly could to secure the release of Ken in this impossible situation.

"It could be that the fate of Ken, Eugene and Jack was sealed from day one."

STAN BIGLEY: "Our only consolation is that Ken is now at peace ... At least now he will be in the caring hands of his son, Paul, whom he loved dearly. We hope solutions can be found to stop ... the loss of innocent lives."

JACK STRAW: "Ken Bigley was a decent man. He was in Iraq for no other purpose than to earn his living by working for the benefit of the Iraqi people. Nothing can justify his killing. It is a terrible crime."

AKBAR ALI, a Muslim leader in Liverpool who had appealed for the release of Mr Bigley: "I think I can speak on behalf of all Muslims. We are very sad, we were all hoping he would be reprieved and representations had been made.

"This group are very, very ruthless people without aims or objectives, just trying to show the world how cruel and mindless they can be. They are giving a very, very negative picture of Islam."