Sun, Sep 26, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Fears rise for hostage as US pounds Fallujah base


A posting on an Islamic Internet site yesterday claimed that an al-Qaeda-linked group has killed British hostage Kenneth Bigley, but the Foreign Office in London said the claim did not appear credible.

The site also claimed that seven British troops had been captured. But Captain Donald Francis, a spokesman for the British military, said that all forces "are accounted for." He had no information on the claim to have executed the British hostage.

The militant group Tawhid and Jihad, led by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had threatened to kill Bigley unless Iraqi women are freed from prison.

The statement, which appeared on the site typed in red, consisted of a single line.

"Tawhid and Jihad announces that it has executed the British citizen and gives you the good news of kidnapping seven British soldiers," the statement said. "We will be releasing the tape shortly."

The little-known site tends to pick up claims from other sites and was among the many to carry video footage of the beheadings of two American civil engineers -- Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley -- who were taken hostage last week with Bigley. It also carried the tape of the 62-year-old Briton begging authorities to meet his kidnappers' demands and save his life, as well as two shaky claims that two Italian hostages were killed.

The British Foreign Office said it was aware of the claim that Bigley had been killed, but described it as a "discredited" site.

The claim came on a day that saw new violence across the country, gripped by a 17-month insurgency aiming to undermine the US-backed interim authorities and drive the US and its allies out of Iraq.

US warplanes, tanks and artillery units struck the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah yesterday, killing at least eight people and wounding 15.

The US military said the Fallujah strikes targeted a meeting point in the center of the city, west of Baghdad, for fighters loyal to al-Zarqawi.

"Intelligence sources reported that Zarqawi terrorists were using the site to plan additional attacks against Iraqi citizens and multinational forces," the military said in a statement.

US forces also bombed rebel-built fortifications overnight, including concrete and earthen barriers and roadblocks, used to res-trict movement in the city and mount attacks on Marine positions outside Fallujah, the military said in a separate statement yesterday.

Explosions lit up the night sky for hours and at least two buildings in the city center were wrecked, witnesses said. The Fallujah mosque switched on its loudspeakers and clerics chanted prayers to rally the city's residents.

Earlier on Friday, Marines fired artillery rounds after observing a number of insurgents getting out of a vehicle with a mounted machine gun, said 1st Lieutenant Lyle Gilbert, a Marine spokesman.

US troops have not entered Fallujah since ending a three-week siege of the city in April that left hundreds dead.

In Baghdad, gunmen opened fire on a vehicle carrying Iraqi National Guard applicants, killing six people, police said.

The slayings were part of a militant campaign targeting Iraqi security forces and recruits in a bid to thwart US-backed efforts to build an Iraqi force capable of taking over security from US troops.

Five mortar shells also struck the Iraqi Oil Ministry in Baghdad yesterday, causing minor damage to the building and shattering windows, ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

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