Arroyo defends troop pull-out

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo has defended her decision to withdraw troops from Iraq to save the life of Philippine hostage Angelo de la Cruz.

In a speech to Congress, she also pledged a series of reforms to fight corruption, poverty and debt.

Her defence of the troop withdrawal came as Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Manila's actions had "empowered" the militants.

But the Philippine security adviser said Mr Downer was "narrow-minded".

Instead of looking for scapegoats, Australia and other coalition allies should examine why the Iraqi insurgency had persisted despite months of foreign intervention, Norberto Gonzales told the Associated Press news agency.

'Pointless provocation'

"I cannot apologise for being a protector of my people," Mrs Arroyo told Congress, referring to the plight of the Philippine hostage who was held captive for two weeks in Iraq before being freed when Manila withdrew its troops.

"Sacrificing Angelo de la Cruz would have been a pointless provocation," she said in her first state-of-the-nation speech since winning the general elections in May.

"It would have put the lives of 1.5 million Filipinos in the Middle East at risk by making them a part of the war."

But the majority of Ms Arroyo's speech focused on her plans for badly-needed economic reforms.

She pledged to use her new six-year term to wipe out the $3.6bn annual budget deficit, as well as create six million jobs.

The US-trained economist also promised to cut corruption, streamline bureaucracy, raise living standards and chase tax evaders.

But she faces an uphill struggle. A recent poll indicated that most Filipinos believe their lives have worsened over the last year.

Another possible hurdle is that her main election challenger, popular actor Fernando Poe, has refused to concede defeat.

He has mounted a legal challenge against the election results, and his supporters have threatened street protests.

Despite the troop withdrawal, Mrs Arroyo also faces criticism from many left-wing groups for her decision to send soldiers to Iraq in the first place.

About 3,000 protesters tried to march on the Lower House of Congress during her speech on Monday, but were pushed back by police.

'Pools of blood'

The US, Australia and other coalition allies have sharply criticised the Philippines' decision to withdraw its troops from Iraq, saying it sent the wrong message to the hostage-takers.

Over the weekend, the al-Qaeda-linked Tawhid Islamic Group posted an internet statement threatening to turn Australia into "pools of blood" unless it recalled its troops from the Gulf.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the threat was a direct result of the withdrawal of Spanish and Philippine troops from Iraq - actions which encouraged terrorists to continue their threats against nations with a continued presence there.

"We regret that the Philippines government made that decision," Mr Downer told the BBC's Today programme on Monday.

"They did save the life of their citizen of course, but the trouble is it does make life a little more difficult for other countries that still have people in Iraq."

Despite the disagreement over Iraq, US special forces started the latest series of exercises to train Philippine soldiers on Monday.

The joint counter-terrorist exercises are taking place on the southern island of Mindanao, where Islamic militants are known to be active.

Analysts say the US has too much at stake in helping the Philippines to fight Muslim militants to risk a serious breakdown in relations between the two countries.

26/07/2004

Bron : BBC News

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