Fri, Jul 16, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Militants say no early release for Filipino truck driver

HOSTAGE A new video message from Angelo de la Cruz was broadcast by al Jazeera as well as a message from his captors, while Washington pressed Manila not to cave in

REUTERS , MANILA

A Filipino held hostage in Iraq told his family in a videotaped message aired yesterday that he would be home soon, but the militants holding him said he would be freed only after Manila withdrew its troops from Iraq.

However, the Philippine military was still awaiting orders to leave, a day after Manila said it would pull its troops out of Iraq to save Angelo de la Cruz despite pressure from the US not to cave in to the demands.

A message recorded by the kidnappers appeared to extend a previous deadline beyond July 20 but said de la Cruz would not be handed over until all Philippine troops had left Iraq.

"The hostage will be released after the withdrawal of the last Filipino soldier from Iraq within a period that does not exceed the current month," the statement by the Islamic Army said.

Addressing his family, de la Cruz said: "Wait for me, I'm coming back to you," Arabic television channel al Jazeera said in its translation of his remarks.

De la Cruz appeared in good health and wore civilian clothes, unlike in previous tapes in which he wore an orange jumpsuit.

Al Jazeera quoted de la Cruz as sending a message of thanks to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for her decision to withdraw her forces.

Officials in Manila declined to comment.

"We will make the proper announcement if he is already in our custody," a presidential palace official said on condition of anonymity.

Militants who captured de la Cruz had threatened to kill him unless Manila withdrew its 43 soldiers and eight police by July 20, one month ahead of schedule.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert said on Wednesday her ministry was working to meet the kidnappers' demands and that the contingent had already been reduced.

Air force spokesman Major Restituto Padilla said yesterday that no order to withdraw had yet been received and two planes on standby in Manila for an evacuation were now on other missions.

The kidnappers' demand has left Arroyo walking a tightrope between demands at home to save de la Cruz's life and the wish to please the US by remaining in Iraq. The US has expressed grave concern.

"In a crisis, an ally, a friend, helps a partner to be strong and that's what we are trying to do," US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone said after meeting Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita yesterday.

"In a time of test where enemies demand you kneel ... I just ask you please, don't confuse your enemies or your friends," he said.

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