MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The Philippines confirmed Saturday it would withdraw its small peacekeeping contingent from Iraq on Aug. 20, as planned, but it was unclear if the announcement had saved the life of a Filipino hostage being held in Iraq.

Government officials said truck driver Angelo dela Cruz had been released, but the Arab television station Al-Jazeera said it had received a message from the militants denying that.

The Philippine government made no connection between the announcement about its troops and dela Cruz’s reported release. But if the release were confirmed, it would appear the statement by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration had satisfied his captors.

In Baghdad, diplomats were cautious about dela Cruz’s fate.

“We’re not going to say we have him until we see him,” one diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The Islamic Army of Iraq-Khalid bin al-Waleed Brigade said in a statement carried by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television that it would give the Philippine government 24 hours to ensure its sincerity, but did not elaborate.

It said the Philippines must pull out its troops by July 20, a month before the scheduled withdrawal. Until then, the captors said, dela Cruz would “be treated as a prisoner of war, in accordance with Islamic precepts.”

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.

The men who snatched dela Cruz near the restive Sunni Triangle city of Fallujah on Wednesday said they would kill him unless Manila pulled out its 51-member force within three days. The deadline was hours away late Saturday, when the Philippine government announced his release.

“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,” said Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas, who was staying with the hostage’s family in a hotel at the former Clark Air Base.

“He is in safe hands,” added National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales.

Santo Tomas said Arroyo had called dela Cruz’s wife to relay the news. Jubilation broke out at the family home in northern Pampanga province.

“I feel so relieved,” said dela Cruz’s brother Jessie. “We are very happy. Our village is celebrating.”

The withdrawal announcement appeared to be deliberately ambiguous, reflecting the fine line that the Philippines was walking 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.

“Our humanitarian contingent is scheduled to return on Aug. 20,” presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said. “Our future actions shall be guided by the U.N. Security Council decision as embodied in Resolution 1546, which defines the role of the U.N. and its member states in the future of Iraq.”

Resolution 1546 covered the recent handover of power to Iraq’s interim government. It specifies that Iraq can request “the continued presence of the multinational force and setting out its tasks.”

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.

Arroyo went to Georgetown University with former President Bill Clinton and was given a rare White House state dinner by his successor, President Bush. She has been a staunch U.S. ally, drawing the wrath of the leftist groups that helped bring her to power in 2001.

Arab television station Al-Jazeera showed a video Saturday of dela Cruz appealing to his country to give in to his captors’ demand, and an appeal by Philippine Muslim leaders for dela Cruz’s release.

Mahid Mutilan, vice governor of the Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines and an Islamic religious leader, told the insurgents in Arabic that dela Cruz “is a mere truck driver struggling in Iraq … to feed his poor family here.”

Appearing grim-faced, popular movie actor Robin Padilla, who belongs to the Return to Islam Movement, offered to take the place of dela Cruz in Iraq.

“Our countrymen are not your enemies,” he told the kidnappers. “We are traveling on the same road. Muslims and Christians should live under the light of peace.”


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