Mon, Jul 12, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Philippines rejects hostage-takers' pull-out demand

DPA AND AFP , MANILA AND BAGHDAD

The Philippines yesterday rejected demands by Islamic militants threatening to execute a Filipino hostage in Iraq to pull out its small humanitarian contingent from the strife-torn country one month earlier than scheduled.

"In line with our commitment to the free people of Iraq, we reiterate our plan to return our humanitarian contingent as scheduled on Aug. 20, 2004," Foreign Secretary Delia Albert told reporters after an emergency Cabinet meeting.

The kidnappers holding Filipino trucker Angelo dela Cruz meanwhile extended their deadline by nine days, a senior diplomat said late last night.

"I am told that the deadline has been extended by nine days till July 20. This has given us hope that the hostage is alive and the kidnappers are realizing that he has nothing to do with them," the diplomat said.

The militants have warned that if the Philippines did not commit to withdrawing its 51-member contingent in Iraq by July 20, "the hostage will be executed," according to a statement they issued to the Arab television station al-Jazeera.

The Philippine government said it was continuing to work "both through formal and informal" channels to free dela Cruz, a 46-year-old father of eight.

"We continue to do everything we can in order to secure the release of Angelo dela Cruz," Albert said. "We are hopeful that with the continued support and prayers of the people, we will hurdle this crisis."

She said Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas, who erroneously announced late Saturday that dela Cruz had been freed, was accompanying the hostage's wife and brother to Iraq "in order to be closer to the developments on the ground."

"We are extending our utmost support to the family during this very critical time," it added.

The government's decision came despite mounting pressure for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to recall the country's troops in Iraq in order to save dela Cruz. Labor activists warned the government would be committing an "unforgivable mistake" if it would not heed the militants' demand.

They also criticized Arroyo for lying about the fate of dela Cruz on Saturday, when the president reportedly called his wife to tell her that her husband had been freed.

"Government has deceived the family of dela Cruz and the Filipino people," said Connie Regalado, chairwoman of Migrante, an organization representing Filipino overseas workers, referring to the erroneous announcement of his release.

Jubilation had broken out in the hometown of dela Cruz in Pampanga province, 75km north of Manila, when news came in that he had already been released.

Relatives and friends yesterday resumed prayer vigils, while special masses were offered for dela Cruz.

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