MANILA, Philippines – President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (search) rejoiced Tuesday in the news that a Filipino hostage has been freed in Iraq, raising her arms and exclaiming, "Well done!"
Breaking a weeklong news blackout, Arroyo went on live television to confirm that Angelo dela Cruz (search) had been released by the insurgents who abducted him July 7 near Fallujah.
"It was a time of trial and a time of triumph," Arroyo said of the difficult negotiations that led her to give in to the kidnappers' demand for dela Cruz's release.
Arroyo withdrew the 51-member Philippine contingent in Iraq a month early, drawing criticism from her closest allies. She said she did not regret the decision, which one U.S. official has said would lead Washington to re-examine bilateral ties.
"We must rejoice at the good news, but our happiness must be tempered by the awareness that we live in dangerous times, and that we must work to create a more peaceful world," Arroyo said.
She described the truck driver, a father of eight who has become a national icon in a country with millions of its citizens working abroad, as healthy and in high spirits.
"If you hear anything at all, it would be the collective sigh of relief by Filipinos all over the world," said Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas (search), who accompanied dela Cruz's wife, Arsenia, to Amman, Jordan, to monitor developments in the case.
The presidential palace, which denied the government paid a large ransom, released a videotape of Arroyo talking with dela Cruz by phone.
"I hope you are happy now," the president said.
"Yes, ma'am," responded dela Cruz, who appeared to be having trouble hearing Arroyo.
She also spoke with Philippine diplomats in Baghdad, thanking them for their efforts.
Dela Cruz, who was to be flown to Abu Dhabi on Wednesday for a medical checkup before heading home, told GMA television that his goal remains the same as before his abduction: to help his family.
"My only ambition and the only wish I ask of God is to be able to help my children finish school and to give them a good future," he said, explaining that one of his children was forced to drop out due to lack of money. "Maybe I will just go back to my work as a driver."
His wife told reporters that she won't let him return to the Middle East.
Relatives and friends, cautious after earlier reports of his release turned out to be false, cheered when they saw dela Cruz in a video feed from Baghdad being hugged by fellow drivers as he entered the Philippine Embassy. A brother said he appeared to have lost weight.
"I don't want any present," said one of dela Cruz's sons, Julisis. "It's only my father that I want for my present."
Arroyo's decision to withdraw gambled cozy links with Washington to avoid the potentially explosive political situation had dela Cruz been beheaded, analysts said.
Her chief of staff, Rigoberto Tiglao, said the crisis was "a metaphor" for Arroyo's government by putting Filipinos first.
But troubled by communist insurgents and Muslim extremists, 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.
Arroyo made no direct reference to the criticism she has taken for giving into the kidnappers' demand. But she made clear that Filipino contract workers, including 4,000 on U.S. bases in Iraq, influenced her decision. Santo Tomas said security would be strengthened for the workers in Iraq on Arroyo's orders.
"My government has a deep national interest in their well-being wherever they live and work," Arroyo said. "I made a decision to bring our troops home a few days early in order to spare the life of Angelo. I do not regret that decision. Every life is important."
A U.S. Embassy statement expressed happiness over dela Cruz's release, while adding: "We condemn the targeting of innocent civilians."
The Philippines had not been scheduled to leave Iraq until Aug. 20. But the soldiers and police began leaving last week, and the last group crossed into Kuwait on Monday.