Official says country will pull troops out of Iraq ‘as soon as possible’ |

Official says country will pull troops out of Iraq ‘as soon as possible’

Last- minute appeal made to free Filipino hostage Angelo dela Cruz.

BAGHDAD, Iraq – A Philippine official said Tuesday the country would withdraw its troops from Iraq “as soon as possible” in response to kidnappers’ demands. But it was unclear if such a pullout would come ahead of its scheduled Aug. 20 departure.

Insurgents had said they would kill truck driver Angelo dela Cruz, 46, if the Philippines did not agree to pull its 51-member peacekeeping force by July 20. It wasn’t known if the appeal saved his life.

Philippine Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Rafael Seguis, speaking on Arab TV Al-Jazeera this morning, said the Philippines would pull its troops out “as soon as possible.”

When questioned as to when that would be, he said a pullout would come according to the government’s commitments.

It appeared the statement may have been deliberately ambiguous in a bid to save dela Cruz.

“I appeal to you and to your kind hearts as Muslims to please release Angelo dela Cruz so that he can return to his family and children,” Sequis said from Baghdad.

Seguis spoke after the kidnappers issued a statement that gave Manila until 3 p.m. EDT Monday to respond. That deadline passed with no indication on his fate.

Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas had earlier expressed hope for dela Cruz’s release as she visited Dubai, where she was accompanying his wife and brother as they traveled to Amman, Jordan.

“This is a time when hope and optimism are particularly important to all of us,” she said. “The wife and brother of Angelo are in high spirits.”

Dela Cruz’s wife, Arsenia, said, “Let us not stop, let us not lose hope.”

Dela Cruz was snatched Wednesday. The Philippines’ announcement Saturday that it would pull out its 51-strong contingent on Aug. 20, when its current mandate ends, did not satisfy his captors, who issued a statement Sunday demanding the withdrawal be moved up to July 20.

The militants’ statement said they had done everything in their power to prove they had wanted to spare his life.

Dela Cruz’s sister, Lydia Ghazzawi of Pacifica, Calif., cried when she talked to a reporter at her home Monday.

“We’re still hoping,” the 35-year-old Ghazzawi, one of dela Cruz’s three sisters, told The Associated Press. “I don’t know what to believe. I’m confused right now.”

Recognizing the fine line that Manila was taking to obtain dela Cruz’s release while remaining one of Washington’s closest supporters, U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone earlier expressed support for Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

“It’s a tough crisis and leaders are called upon in a crisis to do hard things, and she has stood up and she’s shown a deep, deep care for this hostage but also careful of the country’s long-term interests,” he told ABS-CBN TV.

But Arroyo’s handling of the crisis has also drawn criticism. About 400 protesters marched to the presidential palace Monday to demand the withdrawal of Filipino troops from Iraq, but were turned back by riot police using truncheons and shields.

Iraqi militants have repeatedly used terrorist attacks to try to force governments to withdraw from the U.S.-led occupation force.