Filipino hostage threatened with beheading 'is released'

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The Independent Online

An agonising melodrama over the life of a Filipino hostage whom Iraqi insurgents had repeatedly threatened to behead appeared to be over yesterday when the man was reportedly freed. After a series of conflicting statements that falsely raised the hopes of the man's family, a Philippine minister finally confirmed on late Saturday afternoon that the man would be liberated.

An agonising melodrama over the life of a Filipino hostage whom Iraqi insurgents had repeatedly threatened to behead appeared to be over yesterday when the man was reportedly freed. After a series of conflicting statements that falsely raised the hopes of the man's family, a Philippine minister finally confirmed on late Saturday afternoon that the man would be liberated.

Labour Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas, who was staying with the family of the hostage, Angelo de la Cruz, in a hotel at the former US Clark Air Base in the Philippines, said: "While this man is still not in our hands, he will be brought to a hotel in Baghdad, where he will be turned over to our people."

Ms Santo Tomas said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had called the wife of Mr De la Cruz to relay the news. Jubilation broke out at the family home in northern Pampanga province, where friends and relatives had gathered for a vigil. The announcement came just hours after President Arroyo's spokesman said the Philippines' small peacekeeping contingent in Iraq would be withdrawn when its stint ends on 20 August. Mr De la Cruz's captors had demanded Manila pull out its 52-strong force within three days or he would be beheaded, a deadline that was drawing near as word came of the release.

Earlier yesterday, al-Jazeera showed a video of the hostage appealing to Manila to give in to the insurgents and withdraw its force.

The government decision appeared to be deliberately ambiguous, representing the fine line Manila was walking to obtain Mr de la Cruz's release while remaining one of Washington's closest supporters of the global war on terrorism.

Mrs Arroyo had already barred any more contract workers from going to Iraq, but the statement did not mention any plans to have them return home.

Mr De la Cruz, a 46-year-old father of eight from the town of Mexico in northern Pampanga province, reportedly worked as a truck driver for a Saudi company. He was snatched near Fallujah in an attack that killed his Iraqi security guard. A first video on Wednesday showed him surrounded by armed, masked men. Yesterday, in the second video, he said: "Please, Arroyo, withdraw your forces from Iraq."

Mr De la Cruz was alone on the video, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit like that worn by American hostage Nicholas Berg and South Korean hostage Kim Sun-il when they were beheaded by militants. Behind him was a black banner that read: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohamed is his only prophet." The banner identified the group that captured him as "the Islamic Army of Iraq ­ Khalid bin al-Waleed Brigade".

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