Sat, Jul 24, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Arroyo unmoved by US complaint over hostage

DOMESTIC PRESSURE The Philippine president said she had no regrets over pulling troops from Iraq early, arguing that her country faced special circumstances

AFP , MANILA

Filipino dancers celebrate the arrival of Angelo de la Cruz, a 46-year-old father of eight, in his hometown of Buenavista, north of Manila, yesterday.

PHOTO: EPA

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo was defiant yesterday in the face of harsh US criticism of the recall of Philippine troops from Iraq to save a hostage's life, as the freed man arrived in his impoverished hometown to a hero's welcome.

The US envoy to Manila, Francis Ricciardone, was meanwhile en route to Washington to explain domestic pressures that led to Arroyo's decision to pull out the Philippines' 51-member contingent of troops earlier than scheduled.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell on Thursday added to previous US criticism of the troop withdrawal, which was completed on Monday -- a month ahead of schedule, saying that "in effect the kidnappers were rewarded for kidnapping."

"We were very disappointed in the actions of the Philippine government," he said. "I'm pleased that the Filipino gentleman was returned home safely, but I think a very high price was paid for the policy position that the Philippine government took."

Arroyo said she did not regret her decision to recall the country's small contingent to serve national interest by saving kidnapped truck driver Angelo de la Cruz.

While denying a "break in strategic partnership" with the US, Arroyo said her government had to protect the millions of Filipino workers abroad.

"I trust that our allies will come to understand that the Philippines is in a special circumstance unlike the US, Australia, Bulgaria and other countries," Arroyo said, referring to other countries that have troops in Iraq.

"And as Angelo comes home, I am not about to bare a bleeding heart to defend my position," Arroyo said during a major policy speech. "It won't take more than three lines to summarize my case, and let me say them."

"One, I take responsibility. Two, I make no apologies. Three, I stuck to my oath," she said.

Arroyo had vowed to save de la Cruz, who was seized while driving a truck on July 4. The Iraqi militants who captured him had threatened to behead him if the Philippines did not withdraw its troops.

Analysts said she was afraid of angering the estimated 7 million Filipinos working abroad if she let de la Cruz die. These workers are a formidable constituency, whose billions of dollars in remittances keep the economy afloat.

De la Cruz arrived back in the Philippines on Thursday and yesterday traveled home to his village of Buenavista, north of Manila.

Thousands milled the streets to greet him as marching bands preceded the entry of the van carrying him and his family. Crowds mobbed the vehicle, eager to get a glimpse of the figure that Arroyo dubbed "a Filipino everyman."

"I want to thank President Arroyo and our government," de la Cruz told the crowd. "Our president gave first priority to saving my life. I won't forget that."

He was to join Arroyo later yesterday for a thanksgiving mass.

The US envoy to Manila traveled to Washington on Thursday for talks with officials that would include the troop withdrawal, US charge d'affaires Joseph Mussomeli said.

The issue was not the life of one man or the war in Iraq, he said. Rather, it was "that the Philippines is seen as taking orders from terrorists" to save a hostage, Mussomeli said.

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