Philippines says it will pull peacekeepers out of Iraq

Action seen as response to hostage-takings there

July 14, 2004|By Carol J. Williams and Richard C. Paddock | Carol J. Williams and Richard C. Paddock,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD - In an apparent concession to another band of Iraqi kidnappers, the Philippine government said early today that it would withdraw its 51 troops from Iraq more than a month early in the hope of saving the life of a Philippine truck driver taken hostage last week.

In a statement issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Philippine government said it was "coordinating the pullout of the humanitarian contingent" and that the number of its troops in Iraq already had been reduced to 43. An air force spokesman said a C-130 transport plane was preparing to leave the Philippines to pick up the remaining troops.

In Washington, the Bush administration had said yesterday that it opposed any early withdrawal of the Philippine force. "A decision by the Philippine government to withdraw their 51 troops ahead of schedule would send the wrong signal to terrorists," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

Earlier, one of two Bulgarian truck drivers held hostage by a group headed by Palestinian-Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was executed and the second has been threatened with death within 24 hours, the Al Jazeera satellite television channel reported early Wednesday.

Al Jazeera said it had received a videotape of the Bulgarian's slaying but refrained from televising it. A Bulgarian government spokesman later confirmed the execution.

The government of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, usually a steadfast ally of the Bush Administration, has been under strong public pressure to withdraw the Philippines' tiny force from Iraq in an effort to save the life of truck driver Angelo de la Cruz, a father of eight.

The plight of de la Cruz has aroused great sympathy in a country where 8 million people - 10 percent of the population - have gone overseas to find jobs. About 4,000 Filipinos are working in Iraq; one was killed earlier this year in a mortar attack.

Al Jazeera carried fresh footage yesterday of de la Cruz pleading for his life, then stating that if he were killed, he wanted his body returned to the Philippines for burial. The group holding the 46-year-old Filipino, the Iraqi Islamic Army-Khaled bin Waleed Corps, said it had moved the captive "to the place of implementing the punishment," the Arabic-language channel reported.

Arroyo's government has tried to steer a course that would not offend Washington while offering the kidnappers enough of a concession to release de la Cruz.

Before the kidnapping, Manila had planned to pull out its force by Aug. 20. The kidnappers have said they will behead their hostage if the Philippines does not withdraw from Iraq by July 20.

Manila's two-sentence announcement this morning left it unclear when the remaining Philippine soldiers and police would be withdrawn. There also was no indication whether eight members of the force had already departed in response to the kidnapping or for other reasons.

McClellan said yesterday that the Bush administration was "seeking clarification" from the Philippines government.

Earlier, Philippines Deputy Foreign Minister Rafael Seguis issued a plea to those holding de la Cruz to release him on humanitarian grounds.

"I appeal to you and to your kind hearts as Muslims to please release Angelo de la Cruz so that he can return to his family and children," Seguis said.

He also reiterated that the Philippine government would, "consistent with its commitment," withdraw its contingent as soon as practically possible, without specifying if that would be before the July 20 deadline set by his captors.

In the case of the two Bulgarians truck drivers, Bulgarian officials refused to bow to the kidnappers' demands, noting that in any case they had no control over those imprisoned by U.S. forces.

There was no immediate word on the manner of the killing of the truck driver, identified by the Qatar-based TV channel as Georgi Lazov, 30. Lazov was seized near Mosul in late June along with fellow driver Ivailo Kepov, 32.

Al-Zarqawi's group, Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad, has claimed responsibility for beheading American businessman Nicholas Berg and South Korean interpreter Kim Sun Il and carrying out a string of attacks that have killed U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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