Archive for Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Militants release Filipino hostage

U.S. death toll approaches 900

July 21, 2004

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— Militants freed a Filipino truck driver Tuesday after the Philippines government gave in to their demands to withdraw troops from Iraq to prevent the beheading of the 46-year-old father of eight who had been held captive for two weeks.

Apparently emboldened by their success, insurgents promptly took aim at Japan, threatening in a Web site message to send "lines of cars laden with explosives" to kill its troops in Iraq if they did not leave. Japan rejected the demand.

Also Tuesday, the American military said two U.S. Marines and two U.S. soldiers were killed in action in Anbar Province, a Sunni-dominated area west of Baghdad, bringing the death toll of U.S. service members in Iraq to nearly 900.

Two Marines were killed in separate incidents Tuesday while conducting "security and stability operations." One soldier was killed Monday, and a second died Monday of wounds. At least 895 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to a count of names of the dead released by the Pentagon. The latest deaths would raise the toll to 899.

More than 60 foreigners have been taken hostage in recent months, and there were fears that the action by the Philippines government would lead to more kidnappings and prompt members of the U.S.-led coalition to think twice about sending, or keeping, their soldiers in Iraq.

"The Filipino withdrawal tells the insurgents that they can continue to chip away at this coalition and make it a coalition of two (Britain and the United States)," said Richard Shultz, a professor of security studies at Tufts University.

In Baghdad, Filipino hostage Angelo dela Cruz was dropped off in front of the United Arab Emirates Embassy on Tuesday, a day after his government withdrew the last of the 51 troops they had stationed here.

"Angelo has become a Filipino 'everyman,' a symbol of the hardworking Filipino seeking hope and opportunity," Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said during a nationally televised address. "Angelo was spared, and we rejoice," she said with a smile.

With more than 7 million Filipinos working overseas -- 1.4 million of them in the Middle East -- many people in the Philippines developed a personal connection to dela Cruz since he was first shown in a video aired July 7 surrounded by masked gunmen who kidnapped him near the city of Fallujah. That connection put intense pressure on Arroyo to secure his freedom.

Dela Cruz's family, and much of the Philippines, cheered his release.

His wife, Arsenia, burst into tears in neighboring Jordan, where she had been awaiting word of him.

Safely inside the Philippines Embassy in Baghdad, dela Cruz enjoyed beer with friends, including a fellow Filipino driver, around a table covered with plates of salad, rice and traditional Iraqi chicken.

Dela Cruz said his captors treated him well, and he thanked Arroyo for pulling out the troops. "I know that the Filipinos are all very happy about the decision of the president," he said.

The United States and Iraq have criticized the pullout, saying it would endanger others here.

"All of us know that if you appease terrorism, you will sooner or later fall victim to it or be taken over by it," Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, said during a visit to Bahrain.

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