Kidnapped priest seen thrice; military holds fire

| October 14, 2009

ZAMBOANGA CITY—Navy gunboats and ground troops Tuesday joined forces to block the escape routes of gunmen holding Irish priest Fr. Michael Sinnott, who was seized by men believed to be the same ones that kidnapped an Italian missionary two years ago.

Since he was abducted on Sunday night while strolling outside his convent in Pagadian City, Sinnott and his kidnappers have been sighted three times but no rescue was imminent out of concern for the priest’s safety, said the regional military commander, Maj. Gen. Ben Dolorfino.

A large, well-organized kidnap gang—and not the Abu Sayyaf bandits, as earlier suspected—was behind the abduction of the sickly, 79-year-old Columban priest, according to Dolorfino, the Western Mindanao Command chief.

“It turned out that it’s not the Abu Sayyaf but another group, which is also big,” he said.

Officials said there had been no demands received from the kidnappers, who had not made contact with the authorities.

“More or less, we have an idea what particular group is responsible but as of the moment, we cannot divulge it,” Dolorfino said.

Asked if he was referring to the Pentagon gang, which was linked to the abduction of several foreigners in the past, Dolorfino only said “some of them are Maranaw-speaking.”

Sighted in Lanao

“Most likely the same group that abducted Father Bossi,” he said, referring to Italian priest Fr. Giancarlo Bossi.

The Italian was kidnapped in June 2007 while on his way to say Mass in a village in Zamboanga Sibugay, and released more than a month later. His captors were led by an alleged leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Dolorfino said Sinnott and his captors were sighted in Lanao but did not say in what specific area and whether it was in Lanao del Sur or Lanao del Norte. He said security forces were throwing a cordon in the area.

3 sightings

Dolorfino said Sinnott’s kidnappers might have links with other groups, including unidentified rebels.

“Tuesday (Monday) up to today, we have had three reported sightings. The efforts of our AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and the (Philippine National Police) are to contain them in that particular area,” Dolorfino said.

“We have dispatched more assets from ground to sea to seal off any passages and our effort is to contain them in one area and prevent them from moving to another place.”

Extra precautions

At least four Philippine Navy patrol gunboats and a patrol fastcraft have been sent to the area, Dolorfino said.

The reports from the military’s informants did not indicate the state of Sinnott’s health.

Dolorfino said the authorities had contacted certain people who might help in any negotiations.

“At this point, we have not yet heard or monitored that the crisis management team has received any contact from the captors,” he said.

Dolorfino said the authorities had called on other foreign missionaries in the two Lanao provinces and the Zamboanga peninsula to take “extra precautionary measures.”

Special operatives

Dolorfino said that based on information received, Sinnott was abducted by six men.

“Definitely, these six have cohorts. They probably have a network. So we are building our intelligence to identify the key personalities,” he said.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita told reporters the abduction would not distract policemen and soldiers from their job of delivering relief goods to flood victims and rebuilding infrastructure.

He said Sinnott could have been seized by the Abu Sayyaf bandits or by members of the MILF special operations group.

“The President directed the (immediate) dispatch of special operatives to conduct a joint operation for the safe recovery of Father Sinnott,” Ermita said.

Zamboanga del Sur Gov. Aurora Cerilles has activated the provincial crisis management committee and formed Task Force Sinnott to recover the missionary.

Allan Molde, Zamboanga del Sur provincial government spokesperson, said local authorities had received some leads and established the identity of the owner of the getaway van, which the kidnappers had burned and abandoned.

“As to the identity of the suspects, we are still facing a blank wall. It’s too early to tag any group,” Molde said.

Reward for informants

Pagadian City Mayor Samuel Co said his office would give a reward to anyone with information on Sinnott’s whereabouts.

Co said informants could reach him at mobile numbers 09089553238 and 09277153025.

Sinnott’s superior, Patrick O’Donoghue, said the church had not received calls from any group claiming responsibility for the kidnapping, but he ruled out paying a ransom, citing church policy.

He said Sinnott’s health was fragile, and he could die if he failed to take his daily medicine.

“He has recovered (from the surgery) but he needs constant medication,” O’Donoghue said. “He is taking his daily medication and without that, his health would be jeopardized.”

“Whatever your motives are, please recognize the age and health condition of Father Sinnott and his love for the needy children with disabilities,” O’Donoghue said in a message to the kidnappers.

“For these reasons, please release him quickly and safely.”

Urgent need for medicine

Pagadian City Bishop Emmanuel Cabajar appealed to the kidnappers to free the Irish priest.

Sinnott underwent a quadruple heart bypass operation four years ago, the Inquirer learned.

“It is urgent that some arrangements be made to ensure that Fr. Mick gets his medicine,” Cabajar said.

Sinnott’s fellow Columban missionary, Fr. Sean Martin, said: “I am appealing to their compassion. I am hopeful they are still capable of that.”

Cabajar said he was saddened that Sinnott had to undergo such an experience, given his “invaluable service to the people, especially the children,” through the Hangop Kabataan Foundation that he runs. The foundation helps Christian and Muslim children with disabilities.

Bangsamoro Civil Society

“In solidarity, we join our Christian brethren in strongly condemning this act. We also pray for his safety and immediate release,” read a joint statement of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society and Ummah Fi Salam.

The group noted that apart from his work on special children, Sinnott was also a respected member of the Interfaith Forum for Solidarity and Peace in Pagadian.

Eid Kabalu, MILF civil-military affairs chief, said their forces had joined the manhunt for the kidnappers “in the spirit of helping out in this humanitarian concern.”

Sinnott has spent more than 40 years in the Philippines. Fondly called Father Mick by his flock, he is described by colleagues as a compassionate defender of victims of injustice and as a benefactor to the poor.

 

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Category: Mission Trip/Missionary Security

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