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Since 1st March, 1999
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I’m coming back, says hostage
Release only after Manila troop pullout: Militants

Manila, July 15 (Reuters): A Filipino held hostage in Iraq told his family in a videotaped message aired today he would be home soon, but the militants holding him said he would be freed only after Manila withdrew its troops from Iraq.

However, the Philippine military was still awaiting orders to leave, a day after the government said it would pull its troops out of Iraq to save Angelo de la Cruz. The US has urged its Asian ally not to cave in to the demands.

A message recorded by the kidnappers appeared to extend a previous deadline beyond July 20 but said Angelo de la Cruz would not be handed over until all Philippine troops had left Iraq. “The hostage will be released after withdrawal of the last Filipino soldier from Iraq within a period that does not exceed the current month,” the statement by the Islamic Army said.

Arabic television channel Al Jazeera quoted de la Cruz as telling his family: “Wait for me, I'm coming back to you.”

The hostage appeared in good health and wore civilian clothes, unlike in previous tapes in which he wore an orange jumpsuit, typical of US jails and associated around the world with images of Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay.

Al Jazeera quoted de la Cruz as sending a message of thanks to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for her decision to withdraw her forces and urging her to stick to it. Officials in Manila declined to comment.

“We will make the proper announcement if he is already in our custody,” a presidential palace official said on condition of anonymity.

Militants who captured de la Cruz had threatened to kill him unless Manila withdrew its 43 soldiers and eight police by July 20, one month ahead of schedule.

Foreign affairs secretary Delia Albert said yesterday her ministry was working to meet the kidnappers’ demands and that the humanitarian contingent had already been reduced to 43 people.

Police Major Honorio Agnila from the department in charge of the police contingent in Iraq said no order to withdraw had been received. “They are working at the police academy as trainers. They are teaching the local police.” A news blackout on developments has been imposed by the presidential palace.

With senior military and police officials saying no troops have left Iraq, some analysts are speculating whether the government is playing for time in hope of a breakthrough in negotiations with the hostage takers without real concessions.

In de la Cruz’s home village north of Manila, relatives greeted the recorded message with caution. “Until we see him, we will not react,” said the hostage’s brother, Francisco de la Cruz. Sister Beth de la Cruz Reyes said: “Of course I was delighted.”

Preparations were under way for a homecoming for the father of eight.

Men from the village of Buenavista were setting up a big tent and posting signs to de la Cruz's house, which was decked out with yellow ribbons, usually used in a homecoming.

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