BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Kidnappers beheaded British hostage Kenneth Bigley after twice releasing videos in which he wept and pleaded with Prime Minister Tony Blair for his life. A U.S. official said Friday there were credible reports that Bigley had tried to escape with the aid of one of his captors.

The attempt failed and Bigley was killed a short time later as was shown on a video of his beheading, the Washington official said on condition of anonymity. There was no word on the fate of his captor. A Western official in Baghdad refused to talk about the escape attempt report.

The 62-year-old civil engineer was the first British hostage killed in Iraq and the 28th overall. He was kidnapped three weeks ago, along with two American co-workers. They were beheaded earlier, and grisly footage of their killings was posted on the Internet.

A videotape sent to Abu Dhabi TV showed Bigley kneeling in front of six masked gunmen, according to a witness who saw the footage. One militant, speaking in Arabic, declared the Briton would be slain because his government refused to release women prisoners detained in Iraq.

The speaker then pulled a knife from his belt and severed Bigley’s head as three others pinned him down, said the witness, who spoke on condition he not be identified. The tape ended with the killer holding up the severed head.

Bigley was seized at his Baghdad home Sept. 16 by the most feared terrorist group in Iraq, Tawhid and Jihad, along with Americans Eugene Armstrong, 52, and Jack Hensley, 48. The Americans were beheaded days later.

Abu Dhabi TV did not broadcast the videotape of Bigley, saying it refused “to serve as a mouthpiece for such groups or their actions.”

U.S. and British officials in Iraq declined to confirm Bigley’s death, saying his body had not been found. However, Bigley’s brother, Phil, said the family had received “absolute proof” of his death.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Friday that messages were exchanged with Bigley’s kidnappers through an intermediary in Iraq. But he said the militants refused to drop their demands, “even though they were fully aware there are no women prisoners in our custody in Iraq.”

There were also rumors of a rescue attempt. When asked by reporters to comment on them, Straw said: “I’m afraid I can’t, no.”

The Western official in Baghdad dismissed the rumors of a rescue, saying they had never established where Bigley was being held and therefore no rescue was planned.

Meanwhile, one of Bigley’s brothers blamed Blair, saying Friday the prime minister has “blood on his hands.”

In a message to organizers of a Stop the War Coalition rally in Liverpool on Friday evening, his older brother Paul said: “Please, please stop this war and prevent other lives being lost. It is illegal and has to stop.”

That stern message contrasted wityh a statement read on British television by another brother, Phil Bigley. He said the “family believed the government had done all it could “to secure the release of Ken.”

“The horror of these final days will haunt us forever,” he said. “Our only consolation is that Ken is now at peace, away from those who are capable of such atrocities.”

The Bigley kidnapping and his heart-wrenching appeals to Blair reinvigorated the anti-war movement in Britain just as the Americans were acknowledging that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction no longer existed by the time the war began in March 2003.

Bigley worked for a United Arab Emirates company that provides services for the U.S. military. It was not known when he was beheaded.

More than 150 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, some for ransom and others as leverage against the United States and its allies. Many Iraqis have also been seized, in most cases for money.

Attacks on foreigners, including gruesome beheadings, have crippled reconstruction by discouraging investment and frightening off international engineers, technicians and others.

In other violence, a U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded when their patrol was attacked with a homemade bomb near Tuz, 105 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. command said Friday. Another soldier died of wounds suffered in a roadside bombing in the capital Oct. 1, the command said.

More than 1,000 U.S. service members have died since the start of the Iraq war.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities are using a combination of persuasion and force to try to curb a mounting insurgency in time for elections in January. Some U.S. military commanders have expressed doubt that voting will be possible in all parts of the country.

Among those areas where voting is unlikely is Fallujah, an insurgent bastion 40 miles west of Baghdad believed to be a stronghold of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad movement.

Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s interim government, which is determined that all Iraqis should be able to vote, said it was nearing agreement on a plan to bring its forces back into Fallujah after weeks of U.S. airstrikes aimed at militants in the city.

Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said the broad outlines of a deal had been agreed with city representatives, including tribal leaders and clerics.

The plan calls for a three-day halt to attacks, after which Iraqi troops will be allowed into Fallujah without U.S. forces, Shaalan said in an interview published Friday in the London-based Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat. Residents would hand over heavy weapons but could keep personal firearms, he said.

Khalid Hamoud, a tribal leader who sits on Fallujah’s governing council, confirmed there was broad agreement on these points. But he said not all council members were ready to sign off on the deal. In particular, they are looking for guarantees that raids will stop and the U.S. military will pull back from positions around the city, he said. Further talks were set for Saturday.

Allawi said re-establishment of the rule of law in Fallujah is nonnegotiable.

“Terrorists must either surrender, or we’ll bring them by force to justice,” he told Al-Arabiya television.

Even as talks progressed, American warplanes struck a building where the U.S. command said leaders of al-Zarqawi’s network were meeting early Friday.

Residents said the house was full of people who had gathered for a wedding. The attack killed 13 people, including the groom, said Dr. Ahmed Saeed at the city hospital. Seventeen others were wounded, including the bride, he said.

“This attack shows that there is no safe place in Fallujah, and the Americans are not differentiating between civilians and armed men,” sobbed Mohammed Jawad, a neighbor whose house was damaged in the strike. He said his brother and six nephews were killed.

U.S. forces say the attack was the latest in about a dozen “precision strikes” launched since last month against al-Zarqawi’s network.

Eds: Washington AP correspondent John J. Lumpkin contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-08-04 2020EDT

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