Image: Freed Filipino hostage, right, leaves embassy in Baghdad.
Ali Jasim  /  Reuters
Freed Filipino hostage Angelo dela Cruz, right, sits with Philippine Deputy Foreign Minister Rafael Saguis as they leave the Philippines Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, on Wednesday.
updated 7/22/2004 2:59:20 AM ET 2004-07-22T06:59:20

A Filipino truck driver who was released from captivity in Iraq after the government withdrew its troops a month early returned home to a hero's welcome Thursday.

Angelo 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.

As dela Cruz arrived, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines left for Washington for consultations to re-evaluate U.S.-Philippine relations, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Ruth Urry said.

Ambassador Francis 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."

Arroyo says no regrets
The Philippines drew sharp criticism from the United States and other allies over its decision to meet the demands of dela Cruz's kidnappers and withdraw a 51-member peacekeeping contingent from Iraq a month early. The move was branded a dangerous precedent that put other coalition allies in danger.

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

Dozens of 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 the Philippines.

Video: Celebration Seven of dela Cruz's eight children -- the youngest was just released from the hospital after treatment for a respiratory ailment -- met him at the airport, where he was flown from the United Arab Emirates.

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.

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.

Celebration waiting
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 Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's home province, Pampanga.

"It's a big relief for us and the emotional stress is over. It's time for celebration," Pampanga Gov. Mark Lapid said.

Relatives were preparing a fiesta 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.

"I feel like I've been given a new life," a tired-looking dela Cruz told reporters on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, where he was flown from Baghdad for a tearful reunion with his wife, Arsenia, and brother.

Dela Cruz said he was treated well despite the death threat.

His wife told reporters she felt no hatred toward the kidnappers and was thankful they released him. She nodded when asked if she stood by her earlier comment that she would never let her husband return to the Middle East.

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said the couple had requested that they first see their family after their return.

"We will bring them to a quiet place so that they can have time to be alone with each other, far from the glare of media and the public," she said. "What they went through wasn't easy."

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