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Massive blast rocks central Baghdad

Filipino troops begin pullout amid confusion

BAGHDAD -- A massive explosion rocked Baghdad today on the outskirts of the Green Zone, which houses the US and British embassies. A US military spokesman said as many as seven people, all Iraqis, were killed.

The spokesman said details of the attack were not yet known. Black and gray smoke poured into the air over a parking lot. Police cars and ambulances raced to the scene.

"We were gathering outside the convention center seeking jobs," said one witness, Alla Hassan. "We were thrown on the ground. Then I saw many dead people on the ground."

The area was the headquarters of the US occupation authorities before the turnover of power to an Iraqi interim government. Since the turnover late last month, the amount and severity of bombings and attacks in the capital had decreased, boosting the hopes of residents, merchants, and officials that stability and security might be increasing.

The bombing came amid another crisis over the taking of foreign hostages.

The Philippines said today it had withdrawn some of its peacekeepers and was coordinating a pullout, apparent efforts to meet the demand of kidnappers threatening to kill a captive Filipino truck driver.

A full withdrawal before its scheduled departure date by one of Washington's biggest backers in the war on terror would be a major blow to the unity of US-led coalition in Iraq.

The announcement came hours after militants in Iraq said they had killed a captive Bulgarian truck driver and threatened to put another hostage to death in 24 hours, Al-Jazeera television reported yesterday.

Taking aim at hostage takers as well as insurgents and common criminals, Iraq's new government earlier launched a major sweep in Baghdad, with police arresting 527 suspects.

"The Foreign Affairs Ministry is coordinating the pullout of the humanitarian contingent with the Ministry of National Defense," a Philippines government statement said. "As of today, our head count is down from 51 to 43."

The government has been vague on many of its comments on the kidnapping, and it wasn't immediately clear if the statement meant that the withdrawal would include all its troops.

There was no immediate US comment to the latest announcement, but US officials had earlier expressed displeasure that Manila was even considering giving in to the kidnappers' demand, a position echoed by Australia and Iraq's new interim government.

A deadline set by the Iraqi Islamic Army-Khaled bin Al-Waleed Corps for the Philippines to meet the group's troop withdrawal demand expired early yesterday, but negotiations continued in Iraq through intermediaries.

The insurgents had told President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that Angelo dela Cruz, a father of eight, already had been moved to the place he would be killed if she didn't change her mind.

The Bulgarians were abducted by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group.

The militants said last week that they would kill the two truck drivers if the United States did not release all Iraqi detainees by last Saturday.

The group earlier claimed responsibility for the 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.

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 with their faces covered by black masks stood over a kneeling hostage, identified by reporters as Georgi Lazov, 30. The video contained the killing but it was not broadcast because it was too graphic, said Al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout. He declined to say how the killing was carried out.

Bulgaria identified the other hostage as Ivaylo Kepov. The two were kidnapped while traveling to Mosul in northern Iraq.

"The only thing we can do now is to continue our efforts to save the second man and pray during the next 24 hours that he will stay alive," government spokesman Dimitar Tsonev said.

Bulgaria, which has a 480-member infantry battalion in Iraq, had sent diplomats to Iraq to attempt to negotiate.

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