Freed hostage thanks kidnappers

Truck driver Angelo De La Cruz said he is fine and very happy to be free after his two-week ordeal.

The father of eight has thanked the armed militants who held him for looking after him well.

He was released less than 24 hours after the last of 51 Filipino soldiers and police crossed into Kuwait from Iraq heading for home.

“I am fine and relaxed. I am extremely happy and I can’t say anything more than this,” said Mr De la Cruz.

At the Philippines embassy he was heard speaking to officials in Manila on the phone saying over and again: “Thank you, thank you. I am happy to be free.”

Manila’s decision to bow to the militants has drawn sharp rebukes from Baghdad and Washington, who fear it will only further fuel a hostage crisis that has plagued Iraq since April.

US Central Command chief General John Abizaid said it was “regrettable that countries would make decisions that appease terrorists as opposed to stand up to them,” insisting that the US-led coalition remained strong despite Manila’s pullout.

The Philippines has ignored the criticism, saying its actions were consistent with its national interest.

“I just spoke to him and his health is good, his spirits high and he sends best wishes to every Filipino,” President Gloria Arroyo said.

Mr De la Cruz was dropped off outside the United Arab Emirates’ embassy before being escorted by Philippine diplomats to Manila’s compound in the east of the capital.

“We were surprised this morning when the Philippine hostage Angelo de la Cruz was set free in our embassy,” said charge d’affaires Hamed al-Shamisi, adding that the UAE had agreed to transport the 46-year-old to Abu Dhabi where he will undergo medical check-ups.

The Filipino was employed by a Saudi company working with US troops based in Iraq and was taken by on July 7.

But there was no fresh information on a Bulgarian truck driver who was also taken hostage with a colleague earlier this month and threatened with beheading unless Iraqi prisoners are released. The other driver has already been decapitated.

In another development a website published an alleged demand by suspected Al-Qaeda leader Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi for Japan to withdraw its troops from Iraq or face attack, then just hours later ran a statement in which he supposedly denied making the demand.

Neither of the statements, on an Islamic website could be verified.

The first message, purportedly signed by the Khalid ibn Al-Walid Brigade, the military wing of Zarqawi’s Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Unification and Holy War) group, said: “Do it as the Philippines did.”

The statement also warned Arab and Islamic countries against “sending forces to Iraq to support American forces and the invasion” of the country.

It singled out Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Gulf Arab states, other Middle Eastern countries, and Indonesia and Malaysia.

But the second statement, purportedly issued by Tawhid wa al-Jihad’s “information department,” called the first message a “lie.”

Japan has around 550 troops in the southern Iraqi city of Samawa providing humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, in the latest murder, Hazem al-Ainachi, a coordinator on the Basra provincial council, and two of his guards were gunned down as they travelled to work in the city, 500 kilometres south of Baghdad, officials said.

A senior defence ministry official had been murdered in Baghdad on Sunday night.

“It is very disappointing that somebody who has put themselves up as a representative of the people (should be killed),” said a spokesman for the British-led multinational force based in the south of the country.

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