The longest day

British family's anguish deepens as Iraqi Militants execute second US Hostage
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The Independent Online

In a neat, red-brick house behind closely-drawn curtains in the Liverpool suburb of Walton, a mother, two brothers and a son could only wait, in despair and anger, for news to end their torment.

In a neat, red-brick house behind closely-drawn curtains in the Liverpool suburb of Walton, a mother, two brothers and a son could only wait, in despair and anger, for news to end their torment.

From early morning yesterday, the home of the Bigley family for the past 21 years had been the scene of frantic activity. Television crews had filmed dignified and powerful pleas for mercy and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, telephoned to offer reassurance that "everything possible" was being done.

By 2pm, Tony Blair himself had called, apparently stung by the angry criticism of a family desperate to do "something, anything" to influence events 2,500 miles away in Iraq. He explained in turn to several of them the "limitations" on his ability to end their ordeal.

The family, then, was helpless ­ there was nothing to do but console each other, and await developments. When those came just before 7pm, mother Elizabeth, 86, brothers Stan, Philip and Paul, who was in Amsterdam, and son Craig, received them with a sickening sense of the bitter-sweet. For the Tawhid and Jihad group, linked to al-Qa'ida, had selected Jack Hensley, the fellow countryman of Eugene Armstrong, the American killed on Monday, as its second victim.

Kenneth Bigley, 62, had been spared: but for how long, unless the murderers' demands for the release of all women prisoners was met, and who ­ even among his family ­ could imagine what he was going through? It took the Prime Minister almost a week after the abduction in Baghdad of Mr Bigley to pick up the phone.

A civil engineer performing his last project in Iraq before retirement by the end of this month, Mr Bigley was kidnapped with his two American colleagues last Thursday. All were employees of a Qatar-based construction company. The murderers last night promised to release a video recording of Mr Hensley's beheading, just as they had done 24 hours earlier in a nine-minute recording of Mr Armstrong's last moments.

It was unclear whether the execution of a second American would spur a "blinkered" government ­ as the Bigleys see it ­ into action.

It seemed that the call from No 10 had taken place only after the Bigley family's rejection of the "stay calm, leave it to us" advice of the Foreign Office and instead lay bare to the cameras their impotence and fury.

Their anger ­ and request for help ­ focused on Mr Blair, who 24 hours earlier, as the clock ticked on the kidnappers' first deadline, had helped to launch the new fast rail service from London to Manchester. Sitting in the lounge of his mother's home, Philip Bigley, a 49-year-old businessman, said: "We feel absolutely helpless. We do not have the power to save Ken's life. We have seen the Prime Minister spending time on trains that can help a commuter save 14 minutes on a journey when he should be devoting his time to saving the life of my brother."

Sitting beside his uncle, Craig Bigley, 33, who is due to make his father a granddad in February, added: "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."

Paul Bigley, who remained in Holland where he runs an engineering company, blamed Mr Blair's policies in Iraq for the abductions and angrily labelled him a "fibber".

Appealing to the kidnappers for mercy, the family asked for the footage to be played continuously on Arab news channels. They were words his mother had not been able to speak. Her sons and grandson, fearful that she could not cope with the images flashing across the globe, have kept the television switched off. Philip said: "We've tried to keep life as normal as possible." But he admitted it was a forlorn hope.

Neither Craig nor Philip could say whether they had seen the website footage of Mr Armstrong shaking and rocking uncontrollably on Monday as his soon-to-be executioner demanded the release of female prisoners said to be held in two US-run Iraqi prisons.

The CIA last night said it was certain that the killer, who stepped forward to saw Mr Armstrong's head from his shoulders, was the group's leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born radical said by the United States to be linked to al-Qa'ida.

Last night's execution of Mr Hensley offered little respite for the Bigley family. A statement was posted onto a website claiming Mr Bigley would be killed if the kidnappers' demands were not met. This time, no deadline was specified.

Hope emerged with reports that Rihab Rashid Taha, believed to be one of two female prisoners in US custody, was to be released on bail today. However, British authorities were unaware of the decision and reiterated their refusal to bow to the kidnappers' demands.

For the Bigley family, after five days of uncertainty followed by horror, it was the hours of waiting that were the cruellest of all.Some 3,000 miles away at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, President George Bush ­ campaigning for re-election ­ reiterated his determination to overcome the "ruthless enemies" of a democratic Iraq.

In the meantime, Downing Street remained silent as the plight of Mr Bigley threatened to crystallise opinion against the war. One poll found that 71 per cent of voters wanted the Prime Minister to set a date for British troops to leave Iraq.

No 10 refused to disclose the contents of the conversation with the Bigley family. It is thought Mr Blair said he understood no one could fully appreciate their torment but reiterated that the Government could not bow to the extremists' demands. The Foreign Office, which denied that it had pressured the family to keep quiet, appeared to draw a distinction between Mr Bigley and his fellow prisoner when it issued a second statement to the pan-Arab al-Arabiya television station underlining that Britain held no female detainees in Iraq. But for the Bigleys this was not enough.

Paul Bigley last night vowed to hound Mr Blair from office if the execution was carried out. "Mr Blair should take notice that I am not going to stop on this," he told Sky News. "If I lose my brother, Blair has to go. Ken is there shivering with fear, but he is alive. It is sickening to hear Blair say that he won't deal with terrorists."