Manila Rebuffs Kidnappers in Iraq; Bulgarians Alive

By Dean Yates

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A Filipino hostage in Iraq was in grave peril on Sunday after Manila rejected his captors' demands for an early withdrawal of its U.S.-allied troops.

But in a glimmer of hope for two Bulgarian truck drivers held hostage, Sofia said they were still alive after a Friday night execution deadline set by their kidnappers expired.

Militants holding Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz vowed to kill him unless Manila pledged by 11 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT) on Sunday to pull its 51-strong humanitarian force out of Iraq by July 20. Manila held firm.

"In line with our commitment to the free people of Iraq, we reiterate our plan to return our humanitarian contingent as scheduled on August 20, 2004," Philippine Foreign Secretary Delia Albert told a news conference in Manila.

De la Cruz had appeared close to release on Saturday night before his captors issued a fresh death threat.

"Yesterday was a false hope, he was not released but we are hoping he will soon be free," said a Philippine embassy source in Baghdad. He said he had heard nothing since the kidnappers had extended their deadline to kill the 46-year-old driver.

In Sofia, the Bulgarian government said two Bulgarian truck drivers taken hostage were alive after a Friday deadline for their execution expired.

"Now I can confirm the information, which has been received three hours ago (5 a.m. EDT) that our compatriots are alive," Foreign Minister Solomon Passy told a press briefing.

Amid the drama of the hostage crisis, guerrillas struck in northern Iraq, killing a soldier in a U.S. taskforce with a roadside bomb attack on a convoy south of Mosul.


The U.S. military said the blast also wounded another soldier and killed an Iraqi civilian who had been driving behind the convoy. The convoy then came under fire from a speeding car. American troops fired back, killing the driver.

Insurgents slit the throat of an Iraqi translator employed by U.S. forces in the northern city of Kirkuk. Police found his body in a river on Saturday. A police captain was wounded when gunmen shot at his vehicle southwest of the city the same day.

And in Basra in the south, two Sunni Muslim clerics were shot dead on Saturday night by gunmen near a mosque, a religious official in the predominately Shi'ite city said. The motive for the killings was not immediately clear.

Hostage-takers kept nerves taut as Bulgaria and the Philippines agonized over the fate of their nationals.

Government officials in Manila had said earlier de la Cruz was being taken to a Baghdad hotel, prompting premature celebrations by his family and friends.

The abductors of the Bulgarians had said they would kill Georgi Lazov, 30, and Ivailo Kepov, 32, late on Friday unless U.S.-led forces freed prisoners in Iraq.

Al Jazeera had shown a video of the two men in front of masked captors identified as members of the Tawhid and Jihad group led by Jordanian militant and suspected al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Washington's most wanted man in Iraq.


Kidnappers have seized dozens of foreigners since April to press demands for foreign troops to leave. Many hostages have been freed, but at least four have been killed, including an American and a South Korean beheaded by a group led by Zarqawi.

Without providing evidence, Iraq's national security adviser said unconventional weapons material might have gone to neighboring states during the war last year, adding Zarqawi was probably trying to obtain some.

"Just imagine if these weapons of mass destruction or any of these capabilities of making a dirty bomb or a chemical weapon or anything like this, if it falls in the hands of Zarqawi's gangsters and Zarqawi's people...," Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told a news conference.

Hundreds of Iraqis also demonstrated on Sunday in support of Saddam Hussein in the town of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad.

Masked gunmen led the protesters who chanted against Iraq's new Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who leads the interim government which took over from U.S.-led occupiers on June 28. "We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, Saddam" and "No, no to Allawi," they shouted.

(With reporting by Edmund Blair in Baghdad, Faris al-Mahdawi in Baquba, Aref Mohammed in Kirkuk and bureaux in Manila, Sofia and Dubai)


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