Filipino remains a hostage in Iraq amid troop pullout

A KIDNAPPED Filipino truck driver was Tuesday still being held by kidnappers in Iraq, officials said, despite the withdrawal of all Filipino troops from the country.

The Philippine government Monday bowed to the kidnappers' demands by completing the withdrawal of the small contingent of police and troops from Iraq, more than one month ahead of schedule.

Philippine diplomatic sources said government officials in the Middle East had been meeting with intermediaries in an attempt to secure the release of Angelo de la Cruz, a 46-year-old father-of-eight.

Presidential spokesman Ricardo Saludo said all Filipino troops had left Iraq and that the government now hoped de la Cruz would be set free.

"This is in compliance to the demands and we hope that this will help in ensuring the safety and the freedom of Angelo de la Cruz," Saludo said in a radio interview.

Asked about the exact situation of de la Cruz, Saludo said: "We don't know anything in that area."

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered the 51-strong security contingent out of Iraq after the militants threatened to behead the hostage.

Her decision has been criticized by the United States and other allies, as well as by the new Iraqi government. They warned Arroyo was encouraging more attacks and increasing the danger for the more than 3,000 Filipino civilians still working in Iraq.

The head of the Philippine contingent, Brigadier General Jovito Palparan returned home on Monday and 10 of his men are due to arrive on Wednesday. The remaining troops have arrived in Kuwait but it is not clear when they will fly back to the Philippines.

The kidnappers had given a July 31 deadline for the withdrawal, but analysts say Arroyo is under pressure to bring de la Cruz home before her annual state of the nation address on July 26.

Her government has been under intense domestic pressure since de la Cruz's abduction was revealed on July 7.

Analysts say she ordered the troop withdrawal because she feared massive street protests if the hostage was killed which could unseat her government.

De la Cruz has become a symbol of the seven million Filipinos who work abroad and send back billions of dollars each year to the Southeast Asian nation.

The families of overseas workers' form a powerful constituency.

Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas has been meeting in Jordan with Philippine labor attaches from across the Middle East to discuss how to protect the one million Filipinos working in the volatile region, Labor Undersecretary Manuel Imson said.

Imson also rejected accusations the government paid a ransom to the militants for de la Cruz.

The Philippine U-turn on the troop withdrawal deprives the United States of a fifth ally in Iraq. Spain, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua withdrew their troops after the deadly Madrid train bombings in March.


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