Militants free Filipino hostage

Sunday, July 11, 2004

MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippines confirmed Saturday it would withdraw its small peacekeeping contingent from Iraq on Aug. 20, as planned, but it was unclear if the announcement had saved the life of a Filipino hostage being held in Iraq.

Government officials said truck driver Angelo dela Cruz had been released, but the Arab television station Al-Jazeera said it had received a message from the militants denying that.

The Philippine government made no connection between the announcement about its troops and dela Cruz's reported release. But if the release were confirmed, it would appear the statement by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's administration had satisfied his captors.

In Baghdad, diplomats were cautious about dela Cruz's fate.

"We're not going to say we have him until we see him," one diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The Islamic Army of Iraq-Khalid bin al-Waleed Brigade said in a statement carried by Al-Jazeera television that it would give the Philippine government 24 hours to ensure its sincerity, but did not elaborate.

It said the Philippines must pull out its troops by July 20, a month before the scheduled withdrawal. Until then, the captors said, dela Cruz would "be treated as a prisoner of war, in accordance with Islamic precepts."

Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas said Arroyo had called dela Cruz's wife to relay the news. Jubilation broke out at the family home in northern Pampanga province.

"I feel so relieved," said dela Cruz's brother Jessie. "We are very happy. Our village is celebrating."

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