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British hostage begs for his life

A weeping British hostage was shown pleading for help between the bars of a makeshift cage in a video that surfaced Wednesday, a sobering reminder of the grim reality for at least 18 foreign captives still held by Iraqi militants.

There is wide speculation that ransoms were paid for the freedom of a dozen hostages, including two Italian aid workers.

The new footage, first broadcast on the Arab news network Al-Jazeera and then posted on the Internet, showed Kenneth Bigley begging British Prime Minister Tony Blair to meet his captors' demands.

"Tony Blair, I am begging you for my life," Bigley, 62, said between sobs. "Have some compassion. Only you can help me now."

He accused Blair of lying about efforts to secure his release, saying no negotiations were taking place.

"My life is cheap. He doesn't care about me. I am just one person," the civil engineer said. "I want to go home. Please, Mr. Blair, don't leave me here."

It was the second tape in a week to surface showing Bigley appealing for help. Iraq's most feared terror group, Monotheism and Holy War, beheaded two American hostages seized with Bigley and warned he will be the next to die unless Iraqi women prisoners are freed.

Gruesome videotapes of the killings were posted on the Internet, and the men's decapitated bodies were found in Baghdad, not far from the upscale neighborhood where they were seized from their house Sept. 16.

In the latest tape, Bigley sat hunched on the floor of a cage, his hands and legs in chains. He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit, similar to those worn by Americans Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley when they were slain. The leader of Monotheism and Holy War, Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, beheaded Armstrong.

Asked to respond to Bigley's plea, Blair said Wednesday evening, "I feel absolutely sick about what has happened and I feel desperately sorry not just for Ken Bigley, obviously, but for the whole of his family."

He said the government was doing everything it could to help Bigley and would respond if his captors initiated contact, but had no way to reach them.

Bigley's brother, Paul, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the images of his brother chained and caged were "absolutely appalling, there's no other word for it, heart wrenching." But he said he was pleased to see his brother alive.

"That's the good news I see through the smoke," he said. "This is a last ditch attempt, something has to be done and something has to be done very quickly."

More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq and at least 26 have been killed. Some, like Bigley, were seized by insurgents as leverage in their campaign against the United States and its allies. But others were taken by criminals seeking ransom.

"This kind of thing creates a broader contagion for people suffering for other reasons under the occupation," said Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow for counterterrorism with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. "They get the idea that they can earn some extra cash by kidnapping people."

Stevenson said Zarqawi and his followers probably realize they can't drive the United States and Britain out of Iraq. But militants hope that by taking hostages, they can force the release of a few Iraqi prisoners or the pullout of some troops _ the Philippines withdrew its 51 soldiers to free a captive _ allowing them to declare victory.

The back-to-back releases this week of the two Italian aid workers and four Egyptian communications engineers raised questions about whether ransoms were paid to win their freedom.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi brushed off the questions, telling La Stampa newspaper: "About this business, we won't say anything." Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told state-run radio Wednesday that "no ransom at all" was paid.

But an Italian lawmaker said he believed the Italian government paid $1-million for the women's release Tuesday, as reported by a Kuwaiti newspaper.

"The government has denied it, but that's an official denial that comes in the context of the obligations of a government in order not to give the impression that it gave in to the ransom," Gustavo Selva, head of the Foreign Affairs committee, told French radio station RTL.

Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, work for the aid group Un Ponte Per . . . (A Bridge to . . .), which carries out water projects and helps Iraqi children. They were kidnapped Sept. 7 from their Baghdad office.

The beheadings of the Americans prompted a surge of condemnation in the Middle East, and that may have had an effect on Zarqawi and other militants, said Dia'a Rashwan, a Cairo-based expert on Islamic militants. But he said: "Kidnapping will go on. It has proven to be an efficient weapon."

SHIITE OBSERVANCES: Shiites pray at Imam Abbas shrine as they congregate in Karbala, Iraq, on Wednesday to celebrate the birth of Imam al-Mahdi. Thousands are expected at Karbala's shrines today.

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