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Militants announce killing of Bulgarian hostage

| Wednesday, July 14, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Militants said they killed a captive Bulgarian truck driver and threatened to put another hostage to death in 24 hours, Al-Jazeera television reported today.

Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group said last week it would kill the two truck drivers if the United States did not release all Iraqi detainees by Saturday.

In a video broadcast on Al-Jazeera, the group said it had carried out its threat against one of the men and would kill the other in 24 hours.

Three men dressed in black with their faces covered by black masks stood over one of the hostages, identified by reporters as Georgi Lazov, 30. He knelt in front of them, wearing the same bright orange garment that other hostages wore before they were slain.

The announcer said the video showed the hostage's killing. But Jihad Ballout, spokesman for Al-Jazeera, said the station had decided not to broadcast the graphic sections of the video. He declined to say how the killing was carried out.

Tawhid and Jihad earlier claimed responsibility for beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg and South Korean translator Kim Sun-il. It is also blamed for attacks that killed 100 people ahead of the transfer of power to Iraqis last month.

Bulgaria identified the other hostage as Ivaylo Kepov. The two were kidnapped while traveling to Mosul in northern Iraq. They were last heard from June 29.

Bulgaria, which has a 480-member infantry battalion in Iraq, sent diplomats to Iraq to try to negotiate the men's freedom.

The announcement came as the Philippines waited for word on the fate of a Filipino held by insurgents demanding the withdrawal of Philippine troops.

Also, Iraqi police reported that 527 criminal suspects were detained in a sweep in a Baghdad neighborhood. The operation involved dozens of police and was intended to crack down on "criminals, kidnappers and looters," said Hussein Ali Kamal, the deputy interior minister.

Just after dark Monday, police in pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles spread through the Bab Alsheikh neighborhood and snatched suspects off the streets. Some fought back, setting off dozens of small gunbattles. One suspect died and two were injured while resisting arrest, Kamal said.

The Philippine government released an ambiguous statement Tuesday that appeared crafted to convince the kidnappers they had won and then imposed a rare media blackout in Manila, refusing to clarify its intentions.

Filipino diplomats said privately they were still trying to negotiate with the kidnappers, but it was not clear if Angelo dela Cruz, a 46-year-old father of eight, remained alive.

"This is the most sensitive point in the hostage crisis. We must unite behind Angelo's family, keep our peace and pray hard," Philippines presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said.

The crisis has put the Philippine government in a difficult position. It is a key ally in the United States' war on terror and does not want to damage its relationship with Washington. Still, it also doesn't want to be seen by its people as forsaking one of the millions of Filipinos working abroad.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government has been plagued by coup rumors and vexed by an opposition that disputes the recent election.

The crisis began July 7, when the Iraqi Islamic Army-Khaled bin Al-Waleed Corps released a videotape showing dela Cruz surrounded by masked gunmen and demanding the government pull its 51-member peacekeeping contingent from Iraq. Dela Cruz, a truck driver, was reportedly abducted near Fallujah.

On Saturday, the Philippines said it would pull its troops out Aug. 20, and portrayed that as a concession. But the force's mandate had been scheduled to end Aug. 20 anyway. Another tape then surfaced showing dela Cruz pleading for his country to accede to his captors' demand.

The government said Sunday it had opened backdoor negotiating channels with the group and had received a 48-hour extension until yesterday. But a video sent to Al-Jazeera on Monday said the deadline had only been extended 24 hours and dela Cruz had been moved to the place where he was to be killed in a few hours.

The government met in emergency session, and Philippine Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Rafael Seguis went on Al-Jazeera -- hours after the deadline -- to make a direct plea with the kidnappers for mercy and issue the ambiguous statement about its troops.

"The Philippine government, consistent with its commitment, will withdraw its Philippine humanitarian contingent forces in Iraq as soon as preparations for their return to the Philippines are completed," he said.

Government officials in Manila, normally extremely accessible to reporters, turned off their phones or declined to comment on whether they were pulling out early.

"Let us leave the government to do what is necessary to save the life of an innocent Filipino and to uphold our nation's interest," said Bunye, the presidential spokesman.

Even the United States appeared baffled. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. Embassy in Manila was seeking clarification, adding that Seguis statement "sends the wrong message" to the hostage-holders.

The kidnappers had not responded publicly by last night.

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