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HOSTAGE

British check report of contact

LONDON -- The government said yesterday it was investigating reports that members of a London-based radical Islamic group have been in contact with militants holding a British hostage in Iraq to urge his release.

The Times newspaper and British Broadcasting Corp. radio reported that the Islamic Observation Centre led by Yasser Al-Sirri -- who is accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan -- has been in touch through mediators with the kidnappers of Kenneth Bigley.

"We were told by the mediators that the British hostage is still alive," the Times quoted Sirri as saying.

"We had sent an appeal to the kidnappers for the hostage's release. Another Islamic group also sent an appeal, and the mediators said the appeals were being studied."

In a telephone interview with Sirri yesterday evening, he confirmed the Times and BBC reports, and said that he and his organization "are now awaiting the kidnappers' decision."

A Foreign Office spokesman said the government had seen Sirri's comments, "and we are currently trying to establish how credible they are."

There was no official word about the progress of members of the Muslim Council of Britain -- an umbrella group of moderate Muslims -- who went to Baghdad to try to negotiate Bigley's release. They were expected back in Britain today.

Groups in Iraq have issued conflicting, unsubstantiated statements as to whether Bigley, 62, who was kidnapped Sept. 16 with two Americans, is alive.

Militants beheaded both Americans and last week posted graphic videos of the killings on the Internet.

"I truly believe my brother is alive. I want him home, and I will not stop until the boy is home," Bigley's brother Paul told BBC TV by telephone from his home in the Netherlands. "Ken will come home to us all. Ken is only a little person in this whole affair."

He said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had written a letter to his brother's captors.

"This is a step in the right direction. We haven't got Ken home yet, of course, but such a prominent figure . . . as Yasser Arafat, this is fantastic," Paul Bigley told ITV news in a telephone interview.

Earlier, Bigley urged Prime Minister Tony Blair to make a personal plea for his brother's release, saying Blair's silence would be "the kiss of death."

Blair has said his government is doing everything it "properly" can to secure Kenneth Bigley's release, but has indicated no shift in his policy of refusing to negotiate with kidnappers.

The group claiming responsibility for the abduction of the three men has demanded the release of female Iraqi prisoners at American-controlled prisons -- a move US officials have ruled out.

A man who identified himself as Bigley appeared on a videotape posted on an Islamic website Wednesday, weeping and pleading for Blair to save him.

Flowers and cards arrived yesterday at Bigley's family home in the northeast English port city of Liverpool, where his other brothers, Stan, 65, and Philip, 49, and son Craig, 33, awaited news.

Bigley's 86-year-old mother, Lil, was hospitalized in stable condition after falling ill.

Mohammad Akbar Ali, leader of the city's Muslim community, also called for Bigley's release.

"It is important to show to the world that Muslims and Christians can work together, particularly in times such as these of emergency and distress," he said.

"When I saw Mr. Bigley's appeal on TV, I realized the agony and anguish the family must be in. We are hoping and praying that whatever we do here will have some effect on the hostage-takers, and they will relent and let Mr. Bigley go free."

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