Deadline Looms for Filipino Hostage, Family Angry

By Manny Mogato

BUENAVISTA, Philippines (Reuters) - Just hours before an execution deadline, relatives of a Filipino hostage in Iraq were angry with their government's refusal to bow to his captors' demands and pull its troops out early from Iraq.

Told by the government on Saturday that Angelo de la Cruz was about to be freed, his family's celebrations turned sour when militants issued a new threat to kill him if Manila did not commit by 3 p.m. EDT on Sunday to withdraw its 51 humanitarian troops by July 20.

Foreign Secretary Delia Albert told a news conference on Sunday there was no change in plans to withdraw on August 20, prompting an angry response from relatives and friends as they held vigils and prayed in the last hours before the deadline.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a staunch ally of the United States, is facing heavy pressure at home to save De la Cruz, a native of her home province and one of 8 million Filipinos who work abroad to escape poverty and unemployment.

"Mrs. Arroyo should make a firm stand," Wilma de la Cruz, Angelo's niece, told a news conference at the family's flimsy house in rural Pampanga province, north of Manila.

"She should save my uncle's life and not consider what benefits she might get from supporting the U.S. war in Iraq."

Three hours before the deadline, Angelo's wife boarded a flight to Jordan, where government officials said she would make a televised appeal to his kidnappers.

The mostly Roman Catholic country has united in calls for De la Cruz's release, with special masses being held in churches around the country and Muslim clerics joining the appeals.


Leftist groups opposed to the government's support of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq have held protests to demand Arroyo withdraw the force. The powerful Catholic Church has also called on her to intervene.

"Gloria has to make only one decision to stop the execution. Bring home our troops and condemn the war against Iraq," said Chat Dimaano, a spokeswoman for the Migrante group representing overseas workers.

The Philippine has sent its top Middle East diplomat to Baghdad to negotiate for De la Cruz's release and pleaded with the militants not to kill him after the Al Jazeera television channel showed him making a "final appeal."

Hopes for his release rose on Saturday after Arroyo was quoted by one of her ministers as saying De la Cruz was close to release but a Philippine diplomat in Baghdad said on Sunday that it had been a "false hope."

Albert said on Saturday that Manila had already planned to pull out its token humanitarian force on August 20, when its one-year mandate expires.

De la Cruz's family said he went to Saudi Arabia a year ago to work as a driver after a long period of unemployment.

He was abducted last week near the Iraqi town of Falluja while driving a fuel shipment from Saudi Arabia.

At least 4,000 Philippine civilians work in Iraq, many employed by contractors and working in U.S. military bases.

Three Philippine workers have so far been killed in attacks by insurgents opposed to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.


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