Kidnappers deny freeing Filipino hostage
The Philippines confirmed Saturday it would withdraw its small peacekeeping contingent from Iraq on Aug. 20, as planned, but it was unclear if the announcement had saved the life of a Filipino hostage being held in Iraq.
Government officials said truck driver Angelo dela Cruz had been released, but the Arab television station Al-Jazeera said it had received a message from the militants denying that.
The Philippine government made no connection between the announcement about its troops and dela Cruz's reported release. But if the release were confirmed, it would appear the statement by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's administration had satisfied his captors.
In Baghdad, diplomats were cautious about dela Cruz's fate.
"We're not going to say we have him until we see him," one diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
The Islamic Army of Iraq-Khalid bin al-Waleed Brigade said in a statement carried by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television that it would give the Philippine government 24 hours to ensure its sincerity, but did not elaborate.
It said the Philippines must pull out its troops by July 20, a month before the scheduled withdrawal. Until then, the captors said, dela Cruz would "be treated as a prisoner of war, in accordance with Islamic precepts."
Iraqi militants have repeatedly used terrorist attacks to try to force governments to withdraw from the U.S.-led occupation force.
In March, a series of terrorist bombings on commuter trains in Madrid shortly before national elections was believed to have contributed to a victory by the socialists, who had campaigned on a platform of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq. New Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero pulled out the troops soon after taking office.
Militants also tried to pressure South Korea by kidnapping one of its citizens in Iraq and demanding the Asian country call off plans to deploy 3,000 troops beginning in August. South Korea refused, and the captive was beheaded last month.
The men who snatched dela Cruz near the restive Sunni Triangle city of Fallujah on Wednesday said they would kill him unless Manila pulled out its 51-member force within three days. The deadline was hours away late Saturday, when the Philippine government announced his release.
"While this man is still not in our hands, he will be brought to a hotel in Baghdad, where he will be turned over to our people," said Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas, who was staying with the hostage's family in a hotel at the former Clark Air Base.
"He is in safe hands," added National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales.
Santo Tomas said Arroyo had called dela Cruz's wife to relay the news. Jubilation broke out at the family home in northern Pampanga province.
"I feel so relieved," said dela Cruz's brother Jessie. "We are very happy. Our village is celebrating."
The withdrawal announcement appeared to be deliberately ambiguous, reflecting the fine line that the Philippines was walking to obtain dela Cruz's release while remaining one of Washington's closest supporters.