Nations await fate of captives in Iraq


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A standoff intensified yesterday between two nations supporting U.S. efforts in Iraq and militants holding a Filipino and two Bulgarians.

Officials in the Philippines and Bulgaria expressed hope that the hostages would be freed despite the nations' refusal to cave in to the abductors' demands, which include withdrawing troops. The Philippines and Bulgaria contribute small military contingents to the U.S.-led forces here.

While diplomats, family members and colleagues waited for word of the captives' fate, insurgents killed one U.S. soldier and an Iraqi passer-by with a roadside bomb near Mosul in northern Iraq. Another bomb detonated near Samarra later yesterday, killing two American soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division. In Kirkuk, also in the north, an Iraqi interpreter for the coalition forces was found dead with his throat slit.

Fears for the life of Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz intensified after the Manila government said it would stick to its Aug. 20 date for completing its military commitment in Iraq. The little-known extremist group holding the father of eight set a deadline of yesterday for the Philippine government to agree to withdraw its 51-member contingent by July 20, or de la Cruz would be killed.

A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said early today that the deadline was extended by two days until tomorrow.

"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 Domingo-Albert told reporters in Manila.

Her description of the forces appeared aimed at convincing the hostage-takers that Philippine troops were engaged in good works in Iraq rather than aiding the United States. She made no mention of the 4,000-plus Philippine civilians providing janitorial, catering, construction and maintenance services to the 160,000 foreign soldiers in Iraq.

Domingo-Albert said negotiations were under way through "formal and informal channels" to win the release of de la Cruz, 46. A Muslim cleric made a televised appeal last week to the kidnappers, who have identified themselves as the Iraqi Islamic Army-Khaled bin Waleed Corps, to release de la Cruz, noting humanitarian reasons.

De la Cruz was shown pleading for his life on videotape broadcast Saturday by the Al-Jazeera television channel.

The Arabic-language channel carried footage Thursday of the two Bulgarians at the feet of their armed and masked captors, identified as the Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad, or Unity and Jihad Group, headed by Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi. The group has threatened to kill the two men if the multinational forces fail to release all Iraqis detained during their 15-month occupation.

In the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi assured his countrymen that truck drivers Georgi Lazov, 30, and Ivailo Kepov, 32, were alive -- at least as late as Saturday night.

"I can confirm the information, which has been received three hours ago, that our compatriots are alive," Pasi said at a news briefing, declining to give details about the source.

Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for beheading American businessman Nicholas Berg in May and South Korean interpreter Kim Sun Il last month, as well as for a string of coordinated attacks that have killed hundreds, mostly Iraqis. The militants claimed in a report on their Web site yesterday that they were behind an attack Thursday in Samarra, 60 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, in demonstrations for and against jailed former President Saddam Hussein, about 100 supporters in volatile Baquba, north of Baghdad, chanted allegiance to the deposed leader, while victims of Hussein's repressions hung and burned his effigy in the capital.

Gunmen attacked a store in Baghdad selling alcohol. Last week, conservative Muslims shot up three liquor stores in Baquba. Attacks by insurgents have continued since the June 28 handover of sovereignty from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. But the number of attacks has decreased measurably.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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