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Manila begins Iraq troop pullout

Angelo de la Cruz is shown in this image from a video made by his kidnappers.
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Angelo de La Cruz

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- The Philippines has begun pulling its troops out of Iraq, a move seemingly being made to satisfy demands by kidnappers of a Filipino hostage.

Eight of the 51 Philippine humanitarian troops in Iraq have already left the country, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert said early Wednesday.

"The Foreign Affairs Ministry is coordinating the pullout of the humanitarian contingent with the Ministry of National Defense," Albert said in a statement.

"As of today (Wednesday), our head count is down from 51 to 43."

The United States has protested the action, saying giving in to terrorist demands should not be an option.

At the same time, Washington says the final decision must be made in Manila.

Angelo de la Cruz, a 46-year-old father of eight who was working as a truck driver in Iraq, was taken hostage last week.

His abductors had threatened to behead him if the Philippines did not withdraw its forces from Iraq.

The 51-member humanitarian force was due to leave Iraq on August 20, but the kidnappers of de la Cruz said they wanted the withdrawal by July 20.

The hostage-takers -- who have identified themselves as members of the Khaled Bin Al-Walid Squadrons, part of the Islamic Army of Iraq -- had issued several deadlines for its demands to be met, only to shift them.

In its statement Wednesday, the Philippines Foreign Affairs Ministry did not comment on the fate of de la Cruz or say if it knew whether he had been freed.

Diplomatic sources on Tuesday had told CNN that the kidnappers had said they would free him later in the day.

The Philippine government had been largely quiet about the negotiations.

"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. It is not for us to judge and raise our voices now that Angelo's life hangs in the balance," Ignacio Bunye, a Philippine presidential spokesman, said Tuesday.

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

In Washington, the Bush administration expressed concern and confusion regarding the decision by the Philippine government.

"We believe that a decision by the Philippine government to withdraw their 51 troops ahead of schedule would send the wrong signal to terrorists," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Asked late in the day about the ongoing withdrawal, McClellan said he had nothing new to say.

The Wednesday announcement by the Philippine government came shortly after a Bulgarian hostage in Iraq was beheaded. (Full story)

The group holding him also threatened to kill a second Bulgarian hostage within 24 hours if that country didn't pull its troops out of the country.

CNN Correspondent Maria Ressa contributed to this report.

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