Philippines Begins Withdrawing Troops Early

BAGHDAD, Iraq  The Philippines said Wednesday it had withdrawn some of its peacekeepers from Iraq and was coordinating a pullout, apparent efforts to meet the demand of kidnappers threatening to kill a captive Filipino truck driver.

A full withdrawal before its scheduled departure date by one of Washington's biggest backers in the war on terror would be a major blow to the unity of U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

The announcement came hours after militants in Iraq said they had killed a captive Bulgarian truck driver and threatened to put another hostage to death in 24 hours, Al-Jazeera television reported Wednesday.

Taking aim at hostage takers as well as insurgents and common criminals, Iraq's new government earlier launched a major sweep in Baghdad, with police arresting 527 suspects.

"The Foreign Affairs Ministry is coordinating the pullout of the humanitarian contingent with the Ministry of National Defense," a Philippines government statement said. "As of today, our head count is down from 51 to 43."

The government has been vague on many of its comments on the kidnapping and it wasn't immediately clear if the statement meant the such a withdrawal had already begun or if it would include all its troops.

There was no immediate U.S. comment to the latest announcement, 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.

The insurgents had told President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that Angelo 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.

The Bulgarians were abducted by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group. The militants said last week that they would kill the two truck drivers if the United States did not release all Iraqi detainees by last Saturday.

The group earlier claimed responsibility for beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg and South Korean translator Kim Sun-il. It is also blamed for attacks that killed 100 people ahead of the transfer of power to Iraqis last month.

In a video broadcast on Al-Jazeera, the group said it had carried out its threat against one of the men and would kill the other in 24 hours.

Three men with their faces covered by black masks stood over a kneeling hostage, identified by reporters as Georgi Lazov, 30. The video contained the killing but it was not broadcast because it was too graphic, said Al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout. He declined to say how the killing was carried out.

Bulgaria identified the other hostage as Ivaylo Kepov. The two were kidnapped while traveling to Mosul in northern Iraq. They were last heard from June 29.

"The only thing we can do now is to continue our efforts to save the second man and pray during the next 24 hours that he will stay alive," government spokesman Dimitar Tsonev said.

Bulgaria, which has a 480-member infantry battalion in Iraq, had sent diplomats to Iraq to try to negotiate the men's freedom.

Also, an insurgent group holding an Egyptian driver demanded Wednesday that the Saudi company he works for pull out of Iraq within 72 hours, Al-Jazeera reported. The group did not issue a specific threat.

In the large Baghdad arrest sweep, police in pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles fanned out after dark Monday into the Bab Alsheikh neighborhood and snatched suspects off the streets. Some fought back, setting off dozens of small gunbattles. One suspect died and two were injured while resisting arrest, said Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Ali Kamal.

The operation targeted "criminals, kidnappers and looters," he said. Iraqi police also arrested 15 suspected militants in the city of Kut south of Baghdad, police said.

Iraq has been plagued by a wave of bombings, shootings, sabotage and kidnapping that has badly hampered the nation's effort to rebuild from the devastation of war and sanctions.

Iraqi militants have repeatedly used terrorist attacks to try to force governments to withdraw from the U.S.-led occupation force.

In March, a series of terrorist bombings on commuter trains in Madrid shortly before national elections was believed to have contributed to a victory by the socialists, who had campaigned on a platform of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq. New Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero pulled out the troops soon after taking office.

Militants also tried to pressure South Korea by kidnapping one of its citizens in Iraq and demanding that Seoul drop plans to deploy 3,000 troops beginning in August. South Korea refused, and the captive was beheaded last month.

The hostage crisis put the Philippines president squarely between domestic concerns and her previously strong commitment to the United States, the Philippines' former colonial power.

With a terror threat of its own, the Philippines has been relying on Washington to beef up its poorly armed military to battle Al Qaeda-linked groups in the restive Muslim south. There had been concerns that local Muslim militants, such as the Abu Sayyaf group, may be encouraged once the government has agreed to meet the demand of the Iraqi captors.

The timing was also particularly bad, with political wounds still fresh from a bitter election.

The Philippine government had imposed a news blackout on the crisis Monday.

14/07/2004

Bron : FOX News

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