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Manila rejects hostage deadline

Baghdad, July 11 (Reuters): A Filipino hostage in Iraq slipped into graver peril today after Manila rejected his captors’ demands for an early withdrawal of Filipino troops.

Death threats also hung over two Bulgarian truck drivers, but Sofia said it was growing more confident they had survived a Friday night execution deadline set by their kidnappers.

“In line with our commitment to the free people of Iraq, we reiterate our plan to return our humanitarian contingent as scheduled on August 20, 2004,” Philippine foreign secretary Delia Albert said in Manila.

Militants holding truck driver Angelo de la Cruz vowed to kill him by tonight unless Manila pledged its 51-strong humanitarian force would go home by July 20. De la Cruz had appeared close to release last night before his captors issued a fresh death threat.

“Yesterday was a false hope, he was not released but we are hoping he will soon be free,” said a Philippine embassy source in Baghdad. He said he had heard nothing since the kidnappers had extended their deadline to kill the 46-year-old driver.

There was no firm word on the fate of the two Bulgarians, but their government said it had more signs they were alive.

“Today we have more reasons than yesterday to believe that there has been no radical change in the situation of the Bulgarian hostages in Iraq,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Gergana Grancharova told state radio.

“There are still many tense hours ahead. I do not want to leave the false impression of undue optimism,” she said.

Amid the twists and turns of the hostage crisis, guerrillas struck in northern Iraq, killing a soldier in a US taskforce with a roadside bomb attack on a convoy south of Mosul.

The US military said the blast also wounded another soldier and killed an Iraqi civilian who had been driving behind the convoy. The convoy then came under fire from a speeding car. American troops fired back, killing the driver.

Insurgents slit the throat of an Iraqi translator employed by US forces in the northern city of Kirkuk. Police found his body in a river yesterday. A police captain was wounded when gunmen shot at his vehicle southwest of the city the same day.

Hostage-takers kept nerves taut as Bulgaria and the Philippines agonised over the fate of their nationals. “The hostage will remain captive and treated as a prisoner under Islam until the last Filipino soldier leaves Iraq by latest July 20...or he will be executed,” the Islamic Army in Iraq group said in a statement quoted on Al Jazeera television.

“We give the Philippine government an additional 24 hours starting from 11 pm Iraqi time (1900 GMT) on Saturday to show it is serious about withdrawing its troops.”

Government officials in Manila had said earlier De la Cruz was being taken to a Baghdad hotel, prompting premature celebrations by his family, friends and well-wishers.

The abductors of the Bulgarians had said they would kill Georgi Lazov, 30, and Ivailo Kepov, 32, late on Friday unless US-led forces freed prisoners in Iraq.

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