BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The Philippines said on Monday it would withdraw its troops from Iraq as soon as possible to save a Filipino hostage threatened with death by militants.
CNN quoted unidentified Philippine officials as saying they expected truck driver Angelo de la Cruz to be released on Tuesday, but no independent confirmation was available.
Al Jazeera broadcast footage of Philippine deputy foreign minister Rafael Seguis reading out a statement, which the television station translated into Arabic, shortly after the expiry of a new execution deadline set by the militants.
“In response to your request, the Philippines … will withdraw its humanitarian forces as soon as possible,” Seguis said according to the translation of the statement, addressed to the Islamic Army in Iraq group holding 46-year-old de la Cruz.
“I hope the statement that I read will touch the heart of this group,” said Seguis. “We know that Islam is the religion of peace and mercy.”
The group had extended a previous execution deadline by 24 hours for Manila to bow to demands for an early withdrawal of its troops from U.S.-led forces by July 20.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government in Manila had said it would not change plans to withdraw its 50 soldiers, all working on humanitarian projects, as scheduled on August 20.
Seguis gave no date for a withdrawal, and Philippine officials declined comment. Foreign Ministry officials in Manila were holding an emergency meeting.
Hostage standoffs over the past few months have posed a major test of wills for Iraq’s new interim government, Washington and U.S. allies with troops in the country.
“We certainly have heard nothing from the Philippine government other than what they have been saying, which is that they intend to maintain their presence through August (20th), said a State Department official, asking not to be named.
Al Jazeera, showing a letter it said it had received from the militants, reported earlier that de la Cruz had been moved “to the place of implementing the punishment.”
It showed brief footage of a video tape in which it said de la Cruz appealed to Arroyo to swiftly withdraw troops from Iraq so he could return to his family alive.
De la Cruz was standing in front of masked captors holding automatic weapons.
At de la Cruz’s family home in a rural area north of Manila, relatives were unwilling to talk, having had their hopes raised and shattered before. They prayed and lit candles with friends.
BULGARIA CONFIDENT ON HOSTAGES
Bulgaria said it was still confident two of its nationals held hostage in Iraq were alive despite the expiry of an execution deadline on Friday.
Al Jazeera showed a video tape last week of the men being held by the Tawhid and Jihad group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, accused by Washington of links to al Qaeda.
Militants have seized dozens of foreigners since April to press demands for foreign troops to leave. Many hostages have been freed but at least three have been killed, including an American and a South Korean beheaded by Zarqawi’s group.
Spain withdrew its troops from Iraq after suspected al Qaeda-linked militants launched bomb attacks on packed Madrid commuter trains in March, killing 191 people, in what they said was revenge for Spanish involvement with U.S.-led forces.
Days later Spanish voters threw out the then conservative government and elected a Socialist administration that ordered the pullout. Honduras and the Dominican Republic later cut short their forces’ stay in Iraq.
Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar vowed to restore the death penalty and get tough with guerrillas, but also promised an amnesty to anyone who stopped fighting.
“Whoever said before that they were fighting the (U.S.-led) occupation, we now tell them the occupation has gone,” Yawar told reporters in Baghdad.
“We will be a sharp sword against anyone who attacks Iraq,” he said. “If they don’t stop, we will not hesitate for a moment to use any kind of force required to protect the Iraqi people.”
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose government took over from U.S.-led occupiers on June 28, announced a new security law last week enabling it to impose emergency measures in troubled areas, but it has yet to use the powers.
The European Union, from which Iraq is seeking hefty aid for reconstruction, urged Baghdad not to restore the death penalty.
Washington and the interim government blame Saddam Hussein supporters and foreign Islamic militants for guerrilla attacks.
The government remains dependent on about 160,000 mainly American foreign troops while it builds up its own forces. (Additional reporting by Stuart Grudgings in Manila and Firouz Sedarat in Dubai)