Sat, Jul 17, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Philippines ignores allies on Iraqi pullout

HOSTAGE The US and Australia criticized the Philippines as it prepared to withdraw its force in Iraq, warning that Manila couldn't buy immunity

REUTERS AND AFP , BAGHDAD AND NAKHON SI THAMMARAT, THAILAND

Relatives react after Filipino worker Angelo de la Cruz appeared on a TV newscast in Buena Vista village in the northern Pampanga province of the Philippines on Thursday. The hostage told his family in the videotape message that he would be home soon, but the Iraqi militants holding him said he would be freed only after Manila withdraws all its troops from Iraq.

PHOTO: REUTERS

The Philippines said it would begin pulling troops out of Iraq yesterday to save the life of a Filipino hostage despite calls by the US and other allies not to bow to the demands of the kidnappers.

Diplomats in Baghdad said a headless corpse found in the Tigris River was probably that of a Bulgarian hostage killed by militants linked to al-Qaeda ally Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Hopes of finding a second Bulgarian alive were fading, they said.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Sec-retary Delia Albert said all of Manila's small force in Iraq would leave soon.

"The Philippine government has recalled the head of the Philippine humanitarian contingent in Iraq. He is leaving Iraq today with 10 members of the Philippine humanitarian contingent," Albert said. The rest would follow shortly.

In Baghdad, a source said the 10 soldiers and their commander had left the Philippine embassy in Baghdad early yesterday for Hilla in south-central Iraq, where the contingent is based.

On Thursday, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi urged Manila to hold firm as he announced the formation of a domestic spy agency to "annihilate" the insurgents launching almost daily attacks on security forces and engaging in a spate of kidnappings.

Washington had tried to persuade its Asian ally not to cave in to militants who have threatened to kill Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz. Some analysts said the move would severely strain Manila's relations with Washington.

The US insisted on Thursday that its coalition in Iraq remained strong despite the Philippine decision to follow Spain, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras in pulling out.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard criticized Manila.

"I don't want to be harsh on a friend but ... it's a mistake and it won't buy them immunity," he told Australian radio.

De la Cruz told his family in a videotaped message he would be returning home, Arabic channel al Jazeera said on Thursday.

But the group holding him said it would only free him after Manila withdrew its last soldier.

The last of Thailand's troops will be out of Iraq by Sept. 20, marking the end of a controversial year-long mission, the country's defence minister said yesterday.

"We have started withdrawal procedures ... and I expect our last soldier would arrive home on Sept. 20," General Chettha Thanajaro told reporters here.

Thailand sent a 451-strong contingent of troops to Iraq for a purely humanitarian mission and the one-year deployment had been due to end in late September.

Bulgaria watched a deadline for the execution of a second Bulgarian hostage held by militants pass without news on Wednesday but refused to pull out its troops.

The headless body pulled out of the Tigris south of the city of Mosul on Wednesday night was wearing an orange jumpsuit, similar to those in which several hostages have been dressed in guerrilla videotapes.

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