Manila Gives Conflicting Signs on Iraq Pullout

By Alistair Lyon

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Philippine officials, trying to save the life of a Filipino hostage, sent confusing signals on Tuesday about pulling troops out early from Iraq, while Australia said it would bolster its forces.

The Philippine army said it was ready to pull out of Iraq pending a formal order to do so after deputy foreign minister Rafael Seguis offered on television to withdraw Philippine forces as soon as possible.

But it was not clear if any pullout would be earlier than the August 20 date Manila had previously set for the withdrawal of its 50 troops that was set well before the hostage crisis.

The Islamic Army in Iraq group, which is threatening to behead 46-year-old truck driver Angelo de la Cruz, wants a withdrawal by July 20 in exchange for his freedom.

"We have not had an order from any office regarding the pullout," spokesman Daniel Lucero told Reuters. "We are prepared to implement our withdrawal plan."

Lucero said the plan had been in place since the 50-member humanitarian contingent was deployed to Iraq a year ago and could be quickly implemented.

Philippine officials were holding an emergency meeting at the foreign ministry.

Militants 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.

Spain withdrew its troops from Iraq after suspected al Qaeda-linked militants attacked packed Madrid commuter trains in March, killing 191 people, in what they said was revenge for Spanish involvement with U.S.-led forces. Honduras and the Dominican Republic later cut short their forces' stay in Iraq.

Monday, a roadside bomb killed two members of Iraq's 40,000 strong national guard as they conducted a foot patrol in Baghdad and wounded 14 others, the U.S. military said.

PEACE AND MERCY

Qatar-based Al Jazeera television showed Philippine deputy foreign minister Rafael Seguis offering to withdraw "as soon as possible" to save the life of de la Cruz.

Seguis was shown reading out a statement, which the television station translated into Arabic, shortly after the expiry of a new execution deadline set by the militants.

"In response to your request, the Philippines ... will withdraw its humanitarian forces as soon as possible," Seguis said according to the translation of the statement, addressed to the Islamic Army. He gave no date for a withdrawal.

"I hope the statement that I read will touch the heart of this group," said Seguis. "We know that Islam is the religion of peace and mercy."

CNN quoted unidentified Philippine officials as saying they expected de la Cruz to be released Tuesday.

The Islamic Army had extended a previous execution deadline by 24 hours for Manila to bow to demands for an early withdrawal after President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government in Manila vowed to stick to its original schedule.

"We certainly have heard nothing from the Philippine government other than what they have been saying, which is that they intend to maintain their presence through August (20th), said a State Department official, asking not to be named.

Al Jazeera, showing a letter it said it had received from the militants, reported earlier that de la Cruz had been moved "to the place of implementing the punishment."

It showed brief footage of a video tape showing de la Cruz standing in front of masked captors holding automatic weapons and said he appealed to Arroyo to swiftly withdraw troops from Iraq so he could return to his family alive.

At de la Cruz's family home in a rural area north of Manila, relatives prayed and lit candles with friends

AUSTRALIA BOOSTING TROOPS

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, is boosting the number of its troops in Iraq to better protect diplomats and personnel training the Iraqi military, Defense Minister Robert Hill said.

Australia was doubling its light armored vehicles in Iraq to 12 and sending 30 extra army personnel, bringing the Australian security detachment to 120 and the total number of Australians on duty in and around Iraq to 880.

Bulgaria said it was confident two of its nationals held hostage in Iraq were alive despite the expiry of an execution deadline Friday.

Al Jazeera showed a video tape last week of the men being held by the Tawhid and Jihad group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, accused by Washington of links to al Qaeda.

Reuters 2004. All Rights Reserved

13/07/2004

Bron : Reuters.com

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