Fri, Jul 23, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Filipino freed from Iraq gets home after ordeal

AFTERMATH Now that the man described by Gloria Arroyo as a Filipino Everyman is out of danger, it's the president who must live with the decision she made

REUTERS , MANILA

Released Filipino hostage Angelo de la Cruz (seated, left) and his wife Arsenia (seated, right) are reunited with their children upon their arrival yesterday at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.

PHOTO: EPA

Freed hostage Angelo de la Cruz arrived home to a hero's welcome yesterday as Manila started to count the diplomatic cost of its decision to withdraw its troops from Iraq to save him from beheading by militants.

His long hair tucked under a baseball cap, the 46-year-old was embraced by his eight children as he stepped into Manila's international airport. He said he was still too shocked by his two-week ordeal to say how it had affected him.

"I am sorry I can't answer you because I am still confused and I want to spend time with my family," he told a news conference, clearly dazed by his transformation from an unknown truck driver to a household name and symbol of the 8 million Filipinos working overseas to support their families back home.

Two days after he was released in Baghdad, he flew back in first class with his wife Arsenia and youngest brother Jesse, who had spent an anxious week in Jordan waiting to hear his fate.

He is due today to attend a Catholic mass with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who risked close ties with Washington to save the life of a worker she described as a Filipino Everyman.

Close to tears and looking tired and worn, de la Cruz wore a shirt printed with the words "I am a Filipino" on the front and "To work is honorable" on the back.

He declined to answer questions about how he felt about Manila's foreign policy shift, and repeatedly thanked Arroyo and other Philippine officials for saving him.

"I want to thank President Arroyo and our government and that the president gave my life priority," he said.

"I can never ever forget that," he said.

He said his captors had treated him like a friend after the first two days, recognizing that he was a religious man.

"They must have seen that I am also religious. They also told me that Filipinos are friends of the Iraqis," he said.

By bowing to the militants' demands, Arroyo appears to have calculated that she had more to lose from a popular backlash against de la Cruz's execution than from a deterioration in ties with the US.

The move has broad support at home, with one survey showing 74 percent of 300 respondents in the capital said she "made the right decision" to withdraw the 51 troops a month early. Only 19 percent disagreed with the withdrawal.

Diplomats and analysts see little long-term impact on the Philippines' ties with the US given Washington's interest in helping its ally battle several Muslim insurgencies in the country, but do not rule out some kind of retaliation.

US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone was due to fly home on Thursday for what he described as "consultations" in Washington.

US State Department officials have joined other allies in criticizing Arroyo's decision, saying it was a capitulation to terrorism.

The Philippine government banned workers from going to Iraq after de la Cruz was abducted, but an estimated 4,100 Filipinos are still there, most working in US and UK-run military bases.

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