Filipino Hostage in Iraq Gets 48-Hour Reprieve

 By Dean Yates

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Islamic militants threatening to kill a Filipino hostage in Iraq gave the Philippines another 48 hours on Monday to agree to withdraw its troops, while two Bulgarian hostages were reported alive despite death threats.

Militants had threatened to behead Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz on Sunday if Manila did not agree to withdraw its forces by July 20 from Iraq, where some 160,000 mainly U.S. foreign troops remain after the 2003 war ousting Saddam Hussein.

"I think there are now new signals that the extension of the deadline has been given another 48-hour life," Labour Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas of the Philippines said in a television interview.

It was not immediately clear how Filipino officials had learned of the deadline's extension. De la Cruz was abducted last week by a group called the Islamic Army in Iraq while delivering gas from Saudi Arabia to Baghdad.

On Sunday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert said there was no change in plans to withdraw the Philippines' 51 humanitarian troops on August 20, prompting an angry response from De la Cruz's relatives and friends who held vigils and prayed before the previous deadline at 3 p.m. EDT on Sunday.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a staunch ally of the United States, is facing heavy pressure to save de la Cruz, who was abducted near the Iraqi town of Falluja.

In a glimmer of hope for two Bulgarians held hostage, the government in Sofia said they were still alive after an execution deadline set by their kidnappers expired.

Senior Bulgarian diplomats arrived in Baghdad to try to save the lives of truck drivers Georgi Lazov, 30, and Ivailo Kepov, 32, being held hostage by militants demanding U.S.-led forces in Iraq free prisoners.

Lazov and Kepov had faced a Friday night execution deadline.

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

Al Jazeera television showed a video tape last week of the two men in front of masked captors identified as members of the Tawhid and Jihad group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, accused by Washington of links to al Qaeda.

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


While the hostage crisis tested the wills of Iraq's new interim government, Washington and U.S. allies with troops in the country, three American soldiers were killed in two separate incidents involving roadside bombs.

More than 650 U.S. troops have died in combat since the U.S.-led invasion in March last year.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government, which took over from U.S.-led occupiers on June 28, is heavily dependent on foreign troops for security while it builds up fledgling forces.

Iraq's national security adviser told a news conference unconventional weapons material might have gone to neighboring states during the U.S.-led war, 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," said Mowaffaq al-Rubaie. He did not elaborate.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told reporters after meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus that their countries had agreed to cooperate to seal their long desert border to stop foreign militants infiltrating into Iraq.

Washington accuses Syria of not doing enough to stop militants crossing into Iraq. Damascus denies the charge, one of the reasons for U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Syria in May.

On Sunday, masked gunmen led hundreds of Iraqis who demonstrated in support of Saddam in the town of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad.

"We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, Saddam," they shouted.

President Ghazi al-Yawar was quoted as saying the interim government plans to introduce an amnesty for rebels who have been fighting U.S.-led forces in Iraq within "a couple of days."

"We are offering an amnesty definitely, for people who have not committed too many atrocious acts; everybody except murderers, rapists and kidnappers," he told the Financial Times on Monday.


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