MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines (search) pledged to complete the withdrawal of its peacekeeping contingent from Iraq as early as Monday, fulfilling a demand made by Iraqi insurgents threatening to behead a Filipino hostage.
The kidnappers holding Filipino truck driver Angelo dela Cruz (search) said earlier they would release him if all Philippine peacekeepers are withdrawn before the end of the month.
Foreign Secretary Delia Albert said in a statement Sunday that the remaining 22 peacekeepers from the original 51-strong deployment would make an "exit call" on the new Polish commander at Camp Charlie in Iraq's Babil (search) province on Monday.
They would be accompanied by Roy Cimatu, a special envoy of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (search) helping Filipino diplomats in Iraq secure dela Cruz's release.
"After the call, the remaining contingent will then proceed to Kuwait, and from there, return to Manila by commercial flight," Albert said.
The Philippine Embassy in Kuwait is arranging their flight back to Manila, she said. Some peacekeepers who earlier left Iraq are due home Monday, officials said.
A prominent left-wing group, Migrante, which has called for the Philippine troop pullout in recent protests, welcomed the development. But it urged Arroyo to withdraw all support for the U.S.-led invasion force, fearing that 4,000 Filipino contract workers in Iraq and more than 1.4 million other Filipinos elsewhere in the Middle East could be in danger.
"Additionally, we would like President Arroyo not to send troops again and categorically withdraw support to the U.S. coalition in Iraq because it is one reason that could make Filipinos targets of attacks," said Migrante's secretary-general, Maita Santiago.
Relatives of de la Cruz in the northern province of Pampanga were overjoyed and prayed after hearing of plans to complete the withdraw Monday. They urged the kidnappers to free him.
"Thank you for not harming Angelo. Please release him. He has not done anything against you. He just wants to earn a living," said Ofelia Reyes, a cousin of the hostage.
The Philippine decision to withdraw its troops earlier than their scheduled Aug. 20 departure has been criticized by Manila's allies, who said it would encourage terrorists and endanger other coalition members in Iraq. The U.S.-led international contingent already had been weakened by Spain's pullout following deadly terror attacks on Madrid's train system.
In the first sign of possible fallout from Arroyo's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq, a U.S. official told The Associated Press Sunday that Washington was re-evaluating ties.
The official did not specifically say Washington could scale down military or economic assistance. Last week, U.S. officials said they remain committed to training and advising Filipino troops at Manila's request.
The fate of dela Cruz has gripped the Philippines and brought Arroyo squarely between conflicting domestic concerns — with the hostage crisis stoking emotional pleas for a pullout to save him and her high-profile role as one of the strongest backers of Washington's invasion of Iraq.
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.
Philippine officials initially rejected the insurgents' demand for an immediate pullout from Iraq, but later started pulling out its contingent. The kidnappers have said dela Cruz won't be freed until the last Filipino peacekeeper leaves Iraq.
The 46-year-old dela Cruz was kidnapped July 7 near Fallujah while driving a truckload of fuel from Saudi Arabia.