Monday, October 12, 2009

Philippine military suspects ransom in kidnapping

MANILA, Philippines — An ailing 79-year-old Irish missionary dragged away at gunpoint from his southern Philippine residence was probably in the hands of Muslim militants looking for ransom, officials said Monday.

The Rev. Michael Sinnott was inside the Columban House compound in Pagadian city in Zamboanga del Sur province late Sunday when a man knocked on the door asking for a priest. When a staffer opened, gunmen barged in and grabbed Sinnott, a fellow Irish priest said.

"He left everything — his glasses, his cell phone, his medicine," the Rev. Damien McKenna told The Associated Press by phone.

The stunned missionaries could not do anything "because the abductors had powerful weapons," said regional police commander Angelo Sunglao said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, but suspicion fell on Muslim guerrillas who have been fighting for a separate homeland in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south for decades and have in the past kidnapped foreigners, including priests.

The abductors took Sinnott away by sea, Sunglao said, citing fishermen in the area. The van used to take him from the house to shore was later found abandoned and burned near the Catholic mission.

Regional military commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino said Sinnott was apparently kidnapped for ransom. Intelligence reports indicated he was taken by boat to a town in nearby Lanao del Norte province, where a large Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is active.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo condemned the abduction and warned the kidnappers they will get no ransom but will instead be punished when captured.

Dolorfino said it was not clear if the Moro group or smaller but more violent al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf extremists were involved. Navy patrol ships were deployed to prevent the kidnappers from moving Sinnott to an area where he could be held or turned over to the Abu Sayyaf, Dolorfino said.

The Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for high-profile kidnappings and for beheading some of its captives.

"There is now an effort to locate him and lock them in a particular area," Dolorfino said.

Moro rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu denied his group was involved, saying it condemns kidnappings and will expel any member who will abduct for money. He said his group suspects the Abu Sayyaf may have staged Sinnott's abduction to disrupt a military offensive on southern Jolo island, where the extremists are based.

Sinnott was well-loved in Pagadian because of his civic work, McKeena said.

He has been helping children with disabilities, including providing volunteers to teach the deaf to communicate by sign language. He also has been attending community dialogues to foster harmony between Christians and Muslims, said another Columban priest, the Rev. John Comiskey.

"The people who did this should be ashamed of themselves because Father Sinnott has devoted his time to take care of children who are deaf and those with other disabilities," McKeena said.

The Columban regional director, Patrick O'Donoghue, said he was worried because Sinnott has a heart condition and was not carrying his medication when he was taken.

The priest has worked in the Philippines for decades. The group said he was first assigned in the southern Philippines between 1957-66, then returned in 1976.

In June 2007, alleged Moro rebels in league with the Abu Sayyaf held an Italian priest, Giancarlo Bossi, in nearby Zamboanga Sibugay province for 39 days. The Moro group denied any involvement, and the government said no ransom was paid for his release.

The 11,000-strong Moro rebels have been engaged in on-and-off peace talks with the government.

The Abu Sayyaf is believed to have about 400 fighters. U.S. and Philippine security officials say it has received funds from al-Qaida and is suspected of sheltering militants from the larger Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

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