Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Filipino troops to leave Iraq today

HOSTAGE DRAMA Despite pleas by the US and Iraq's interim prime minister not to bow to terrorism, the last 40 members of the Philippine contingent are ready to go


The Philippine military will complete its pullout from Iraq today, officials in Manila said, in a withdrawal aimed at saving the life of a Filipino hostage but which has strained ties with Washington.

Eleven of the 51-strong Philippine contingent have already left. Kidnappers holding Angelo de la Cruz, a father of eight, say they will free him once all the Filipino troops leave Iraq.

"The remaining members of the Philippine humanitarian contingent are finalizing the turnover of their responsibilities," Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert said in a statement in Manila.

She said the troops were expected to leave Iraq for Kuwait today before returning home.

Washington had urged the Philippines not to bow to terrorism, and Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has also asked foreign countries with forces in Iraq to stand firm.

But the Philippines decided to withdraw its troops a month ahead of schedule after guerrillas holding de la Cruz, who had been working in Iraq as a truck driver, threatened to kill him.

An Egyptian driver is also being held hostage in Iraq but his captors said they would release him yesterday after the Saudi transport company he worked for pledged to stop doing business in Iraq.

Businessman Faisal al-Neheit said an unidentified caller tele-phoned from Iraq on Saturday to tell him that Mohammed al-Gharabawi "would be freed tomorrow."

Two Bulgarian hostages seized by a group linked to al-Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are believed to be dead. The group sent a video tape last week to Arabic satellite channel al Jazeera, showing the execution of one of the Bulgarians.

Officials in Sofia have said hopes that the second Bulgarian was still alive were fading.

A headless corpse dressed in an orange jumpsuit was found in a river in northern Iraq last week and diplomats say it was probably the body of one of the Bulgarians. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy said a team of experts had been sent to the region to try to identify the corpse.

Zarqawi's group has already killed a US and a South Korean hostage, dressing them in orange jumpsuits before beheading them. The jumpsuits mimic the clothes worn by prisoners at US detention facilities like Guantanamo Bay.

Washington says Zarqawi is its No. 1 enemy in Iraq and is offering US$25 million for information leading to his death or capture. The Jordanian-born militant is blamed for masterminding a series of suicide bombings in Iraq.

His Tawhid and Jihad group claimed responsibility for two suicide car bombings on Saturday -- an attack on a convoy carrying the justice minister that killed five bodyguards, and a blast that killed a National Guard soldier south of Baghdad.

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