MANILA,  July 11, 2004
(AFP) - Pressure mounted on President Gloria Arroyo to pull out the Philippines' small contingent from Iraq as the fate of a Filipino hostage in the hands of militants remained uncertain Sunday.

There had been unconfirmed reports late Saturday that trucker Angela de la Cruz had been released, but the group holding him denied the report and instead gave Manila a 24-hour deadline to withdraw its 51-man contingent on threat of executing the hostage.

Philippine activists on Sunday accused Arroyo's government of lying and for committing "an unforgivable mistake" by not heeding the militants' demand.

"The president has lied. Government has deceived the family of de la Cruz and the Filipino people," said Connie Regalado, head of a militant organization representing Filipino overseas workers.

"Everyone was already celebrating after the reported release, but then you get this report that he is still in Iraqi hands."

"She has to pull out the troops now. Within 24 hours," she stressed.

Radio stations were flooded with calls from the public calling on the government to save de la Cruz, as churches across this Catholic nation offered special masses for the 46-year-old father of eight.

The Christian truck driver has become the cause celebre for the country's more than one million Filipino workers in the Middle East. He has also united this deeply divided country, with both Muslims and Catholics and figures from across the political spectrum praying for his freedom.

Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas was apparently the source of the confusion Saturday, when she told the hostage's family that he had been freed.

Television pictures showed de la Cruz's wife Arsenia expressing gratitude and relief that her husband's ordeal was over, but the presidential palace later refused to confirm the report.

The foreign office had also stressed that the 51-man 'humanitarian contingent' in Iraq would only be pulled out when their stint ends in August, and not earlier.

De la Cruz was abducted by a group calling itself the Khaled Ibn al-Wal id Brigade, linked to the militant Islamic Army in Iraq last week as he drove a truckload of crude oil from neighboring Saudi Arabia.

They had demanded that Arroyo, a staunch Asian ally of the United States, withdraw her troops.

In a videotape broadcast over the Al-Jazeera television Saturday, de la Cruz appealed to his government to withdraw its troops and for Filipinos to no longer seek work in the war-torn country.

"To President Gloria Arroyo, please withdraw the Philippine soldiers from Iraq," said the hostage, whose kidnappers permitted him to make "his final appeal ... before his execution", according to the Doha-based channel.

The Philippines Thursday banned its nationals from travelling to Iraq, where apart from the police and military contingent, more than 3,000 Filipinos are working for civilian contractors, mostly in US installations.

The travel ban was swiftly enforced when 120 Filipinos hired by a Dubai-based contractor were prevented from leaving Manila airport.

National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales said Muslim religious leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia, Libya and Egypt had agreed to "do their own private negotiation" for the freedom of de la Cruz.

The Philippines' highest Muslim cleric has also made an appeal to the kidnappers that the killing of the Christian truck driver would hurt the Muslim minority in the largely-Christian Philippines.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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