The commander of Filipino peacekeepers in Iraq returned home yesterday ahead of his troops after the Philippines decided to withdraw them -- despite the US-led coalition's fierce opposition -- to meet a demand by Iraqi insurgents threatening to behead a Filipino hostage.
The kidnappers holding truck driver Angelo de la Cruz, 46, have said they would release him if all Philippine peacekeepers are withdrawn before the end of the month.
Arriving at Manila's airport early yesterday, army Brigadier General Jovito Palparan Jr. told reporters he was happy to be back.
"The men I left there are OK, they are preparing to return home," he said.
Palparan later met Foreign Secretary Delia Albert and military chief Narciso Abaya to report details of the withdrawal that was to be completed later yesterday, Albert said in a nationally televised statement.
Some of the 51 Filipino peacekeepers left for Kuwait last week. The rest were to depart on a commercial flight to Manila after an "exit call" yesterday on the new Polish commander at Camp Charlie in Iraq's Babil province, Albert said.
A prominent pressure group for overseas workers, Migrante, welcomed the withdrawal, but also urged Philippine President Gloria Arroyo to withdraw all support for the US-led force, fearing that 4,000 Filipino contract workers in Iraq and more than 1.4 million others in the Middle East could be in danger.
Relatives of de la Cruz in the northern province of Pampanga were overjoyed and prayed after hearing of plans to complete the withdrawal. They urged the kidnappers to free him.
"I'm happy that the troops are on their way back," said Feliciano de la Cruz Jr., the hostage's younger brother. "I hope my brother follows them home."
In the first sign of possible fallout from Arroyo's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq, a US official said on Sunday that Washington was re-evaluating ties.
The official did not specifically say Washington could scale down military or economic assistance to Manila. Last week, US officials said they remain committed to training and advising Filipino troops at Manila's request.
Troubled by communist insurgents and Muslim extremist terror threats, the Philippines has relied on Washington to provide training and weapons to its poorly armed military to battle al-Qaeda-linked groups in the restive south.
Still reeling from a narrow victory in the May 10 presidential elections, Arroyo has gambled cozy links with Washington to defuse a potentially explosive political situation had she refused to recall the troops from Iraq and were de la Cruz -- who has developed into a national icon -- beheaded, analysts said.
Meanwhile, activists vowed yesterday to pursue murder complaints against Palparan in connection with killings of human-rights workers on an island in the Philippines where he served as army brigade commander.
Militant groups also said they will push the Justice Department to hasten prosecution of murder cases they filed against him for killings during his alleged "reign of terror" on Mindoro island. They claim he may have ordered the killings and other abuses.
Representative Teddy Casino, secretary-general of leftist group Bayan Muna, said the three pending cases against Palparan include the 2002 killing of Choi Napoles, a coordinator of Bayan in Mindoro, and the killings last year of human-rights leader Eden Marcellana and peasant leader Eddie Gumanoy.