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Imprisoned women not freed as tensions grow

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Tension grows over Iraq hostage

(CNN) -- The life of a British hostage was in the balance amid disputed reports that an Iraqi female prisoner may be freed.

A group loyal to terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has killed one American hostage, Eugene "Jack" Armstrong, and claims to have killed a second American, Jack Hensley.

Both men were taken hostage at the same time as the Briton, Kenneth Bigley.

In a message posted on an Islamic Web site, the Unification and Jihad group said Bigley also would be killed if the Britain failed to free female prisoners in two Iraqi jails, Abu Ghraib and Umm Qasr.

The U.S. military has said no women are being held at the two Iraqi jails and that two female scientists at undisclosed locations are the only women in detention.

Both Washington and London say they will not negotiate with kidnappers.

But a senior Iraqi justice ministry official said one of the women prisoners -- biological weapons scientist Dr. Rihab Rashid Taha al-Azawi, dubbed "Dr Germ" by her American captors -- might be freed as part of a scheduled review of her detention. (Full story)

"It is possible, God willing. Her case has been under review," the Iraqi official said. A U.S. military spokesman in Iraq confirmed that a review process was in place for "high value detainees."

However, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said Wednesday that neither of the two female prisoners would be released imminently, news agencies reported.

The wait for news of Bigley's fate came as a car bombing in Baghdad killed at least seven people and wounded 47. (Full story)

The family of Bigley, a 62-year-old engineer, has angrily accused British Prime Minister Tony Blair of failing to take steps to secure his release.

Bigley's brother said the initial reports that Taha might be freed had raised the family's hopes.

"It's a point in the right direction, that's for sure. It's what these people have been asking for," Paul Bigley told BBC radio. "Of course you live in hope, of course you do. But you have to be realistic. I know the Middle East all too well."

The Guardian newspaper reported Wednesday that Iraq's justice minister, Malik Dohan al-Hassan, would release Taha and hold a hearing on whether to release the second detained woman, Dr. Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, also a weapons scientist.

Al-Hassan told the newspaper: "It has nothing to do with the kidnapping. They have all been cooperative and we have decided to release them on bail.

"In the Huda Ammash case the Americans insist she should stay in detention and we said she should be released."

About 100 foreign nationals have been taken hostage since April of this year in Iraq, of whom about 30 have been killed. If Bigley were slain he would be the first British hostage to be killed.

A militant group has threatened to kill 10 Turkish workers unless their employer stops doing business in Iraq. The firm said on Tuesday it would do so.

A Turkish truck driver was freed on Tuesday, while the body of a second Turkish trucker was found.

Among other hostages still believed to be held are two French journalists and two female Italian aid workers.

A British Foreign Office spokesman said the UK government would look into reports of Taha's release "to establish the facts."

"The UK is not involved in the detentions. It's in the hands of the Iraqis and the Americans," a spokesman said.

Blair on Tuesday made the unusual step of phoning Bigley's family. While UK officials said they were using all possible channels to secure Bigley's release, a Foreign Office spokesman said the government would not give in to the kidnappers. (Full story)

Any possible deal to secure Bigley's freedom would be controversial in Britain, which has long refused to negotiate with hostage-takers.

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said the crisis had raised pressure on Blair, who faces his annual Labour Party's conference next week in Brighton.

Many party activists oppose the war in Iraq, and a recent poll showed that 70 percent of the country wanted British troops to return from Iraq after the scheduled Iraqi elections in January.

A candlelit vigil was held on Tuesday in Bigley's home city of Liverpool in a church near his mother, who was being comforted by Bigley's brother and son.

CNN's Caroline Faraj, Thaira al-Hilli, Bassem Muhy, Faris Qasira and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

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