The Philippines has started withdrawing its troops from Iraq, the government said Wednesday, apparently hoping to placate activists who threatened to kill a Filipino hostage if the tiny contingent was not out by July 20.
Angelo dela Cruz's relatives celebrated the announcement and a Philippine official in Baghdad said there was no longer any risk of him being executed. However, the statement was vague, following a pattern of unclear statements as the Philippines has tried to both save dela Cruz and avoid the impression that it's giving in.
Dela Cruz's captors said they would treat him like a prisoner of war if Manila made a good-faith move toward withdrawing its 51 troops early and would free him if the pullout was completed by July 20. The government statement did not clarify when the pullout would be finished but appeared directed toward that demand.
"The Foreign Affairs Ministry is coordinating the pullout of the humanitarian contingent with the Ministry of National Defense," the statement said. "As of today, our head count is down from 51 to 43."
The government was already set to withdraw its troops by August 20. A full withdrawal before then would be a major blow to the unity of U.S.-led occupation in Iraq.
Roy Cimatu, Manila's special envoy for the Middle East, said Wednesday that the hostage was reported "alive and well" by Philippine officials negotiating for his release.
"There's no risk of execution of Angelo dela Cruz," he told ABS-CBN television from Baghdad.
But U.S. officials had earlier expressed displeasure that Manila was even considering caving in to the kidnappers' demand, a position echoed by Australia and Iraq's new interim government.
A deadline set by the Iraqi Islamic Army-Khaled bin Al-Waleed Corps for the Philippines to meet the group's troop withdrawal demand expired early Tuesday, but negotiations continued in Iraq through intermediaries.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, dela Cruz's family celebrated Wednesday's announcement in their northern home province of Pampanga.
"We are happy that they are pulling out the troops already in exchange for my brother's freedom," said Feliciano dela Cruz, brother of the captive. "We're thankful to the president if they will indeed be pulled out. And once they complete the pullout, (the captors) should give my brother to the president."
The activists had told President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that dela Cruz, a poor father of eight, already had been moved to the place he would be killed if she didn't change her mind. (Albawaba.com)
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