Hero's Welcome For Freed Hostage

Angelo dela Cruz, freed Filipino hostage, and wife Arsenia, at news conference upon arrival, Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Manila, Philippines, 7-22-04
A Filipino truck driver released by his kidnappers in Iraq came home to a hero's welcome Thursday, while the U.S. ambassador left for Washington for consultations to re-evaluate U.S.-Philippine relations in the aftermath of the hostage drama.

The Philippine government's decision to withdraw its 51 peacekeepers from Iraq to meet the demands of Angelo dela Cruz's kidnappers won applause back home but angered many of Manila's closest allies, who felt the move put other coalition partners in Iraq at risk.

"I'm very, very happy," a weary dela Cruz told a news conference in Manila Thursday, two days after his release by insurgents. "I want to thank President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and our government for giving value to my life, which I will never forget."

Dela Cruz's arrival took on the trappings of a royal visit, with live television coverage and streamers reading "Welcome home, Angelo" stretched along Manila's main boulevard.

But as dela Cruz arrived, the U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone left for Washington, Embassy spokeswoman Ruth Urry said.

"The ambassador has not been recalled. He is leaving on his own initiative ... for re-evaluation of the U.S.-Philippines relationship," Urry told The Associated Press.

She said Ricciardone also has been asked to return to Washington by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to "discuss Iraq."

Ricciardone had told the Philippine Star the day before that the Philippines' handling of dela Cruz's case would have consequences, but had not linked his trip to the troop pullout.

"Naturally, things will have an impact on how we understand, how we anticipate the Philippines may act in a similar situation in the future. It's worrisome. We really have to do some serious work together."

The Philippines' presidential spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, told reporters "We take his statement at face value. I believe this is normal procedure."

Arroyo has said she does not regret her decision, and her spokesman said her critics should appreciate that she had to put national interests first.

Bunye said Arroyo would make a major foreign policy speech Friday.

"We have many country representatives who have expressed their understanding and support for the president," Bunye said.

Dozens of foreign and local journalists waited in a roped-off area of the international airline terminal for dela Cruz. Airport general manager Edgardo Manda called it "one of the biggest arrivals for any celebrity" in recent years.

Seven of dela Cruz's eight children met him at the airport, where he was flown from the United Arab Emirates.

For a day, the sprawling archipelago overcame its political, economic and social divisions in a celebration of life. Dela Cruz has become a national icon for a poverty-wracked country that has more than 7 million of its citizens working abroad, including 1.4 million in the Middle East.

Filipinos from all walks of life held prayer vigils, lit candles and tied yellow ribbons for dela Cruz's safe return.

Leoncio Nakpil, head security officer for Gulf Air, said 12 first-class seats - each worth $3,000 - had been provided free of charge for dela Cruz's party, which included his wife, brother and government officials, for the nearly nine-hour flight from Abu Dhabi.

"It's a trip fit for a king. Whatever ordeal he went through should be compensated by the luxury of this trip," he said, referring to the British and Australian chefs on board.

Dela Cruz was to stay in Manila overnight before heading to his two-room shack in Buenavista, a village about a two-drive to the north in President Arroyo's home province, Pampanga.

Relatives were preparing a feast that includes dela Cruz's favorite dish - a goat-and-beef stew - and roasted pork. A cousin said he would offer exotic food - braised snake meat with its blood and gall bladder - so dela Cruz would regain his strength.

Dela Cruz was captured near Fallujah on July 4 and released Tuesday. He then flew to Abu Dhabi for a tearful reunion with his wife, Arsenia, and brother.

Dela Cruz, who asked for time alone with his family in the coming days, said he would not return to the Middle East and expressed concern for the 4,000 Filipino contract workers on U.S. bases in Iraq.

"As we know, Iraq is still very dangerous," he said.

By Paul Alexander