MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines — still hoping a kidnapped Filipino trucker driver will be released — rejected demands Sunday of the hostage takers for an early troop withdrawal from Iraq.
"In line with our commitment to the free people of Iraq, we reiterate our plan to return our humanitarian contingent as scheduled on Aug. 20, 2004," Foreign Secretary Delia Albert told reporters after an emergency Cabinet meeting on the hostage crisis.
Albert said negotiations for dela Cruz's release were continuing through "formal and informal channels," adding: "We are hopeful that with the continued support and prayers of the people, we will hurdle this crisis."
Government officials said Saturday that dela Cruz had been released, but the news was quickly denied by the militants in a message broadcast by Al-Jazeera (search) television, in which the captors gave the Philippine government 24 hours to respond to their demand for a July 20 pullout. On Saturday, Philippine authorities announced troops would leave by Aug. 20 as planned.
There are 51 Filipino soldiers and police on a humanitarian mission in central Iraq.
The Islamic Army of Iraq-Khalid bin al-Waleed Brigade said dela Cruz would "be treated as a prisoner of war, in accordance with Islamic precepts" until the deadline expired.
Iraqi militants have repeatedly used terrorist attacks to try to force governments to withdraw from the U.S.-led occupation force.
In March, a series of terrorist bombings on commuter trains in Madrid shortly before national elections was believed to have contributed to a victory by the socialists, who had campaigned on a platform of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq. New Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero pulled out the troops soon after taking office.
Militants also tried to pressure South Korea by kidnapping one of its citizens in Iraq and demanding the Asian country call off plans to deploy 3,000 troops beginning in August. South Korea refused, and the captive was beheaded last month.
A senior government official told The Associated Press that the militants may have been upset by premature reports of dela Cruz's release, and backed out from a plan to release the hostage early Sunday.
He said the Filipino worker may now be in custody of another cell of the same group of militants that seized him.
Government negotiators were trying to establish contact with the kidnappers through mediators, he said, including help from Pakistani officials in Baghdad who have successfully secured the release of one of their nationals.
According to the official, the government ruled out the early withdrawal of troops because of possible repercussions it may have on its close relationship with Washington.
In Manila, Albert said dela Cruz's wife and brother would be flown to Iraq with Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas "in order to be closer to the developments on the ground."
The withdrawal announcement appeared to be deliberately ambiguous, reflecting the fine line that the Philippines was taking to obtain dela Cruz's release while remaining one of Washington's closest supporters.
It left open the prospect that Philippine troops could return under U.N. auspices, although a high-ranking official said any further deployment would be the subject of government discussions that would start from scratch. Before the kidnapping, the Philippines had been discussing whether to extend the peacekeeping mandate.
The pullout decision is a symbolic blow to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, but it doesn't affect the more crucial Philippine contingent — the 4,000 or so civilian workers at U.S. camps around Iraq who would be difficult to replace. Arroyo has frozen any further worker deployments.
A former U.S. colony, the Philippines has maintained close ties with Washington even after the closure of military bases here in the early 1990s. With Muslim and communist insurgencies of its own, the poor country has hosted major counterterrorism training for its troops by U.S. forces, and another round is scheduled to start late this month.