Philippine navy tries to seal off priest’s kidnappers

| October 13, 2009

PAGADIAN, Philippines — Philippine navy gunboats were deployed and road checkpoints set up Tuesday to block the escape routes of suspected Islamic militants who abducted an Irish priest, authorities said.

The dramatic efforts came as Michael Sinnott's church vowed not to pay any ransom for his release, and warned again that the 79-year-old's life was at risk because of a long history of heart problems.

Major General Ben Dolorfino, military chief for the area of the southern Philippines where Sinnott was abducted on Sunday, said authorities were trying to box in the kidnappers after they were seen with their captive on Monday.

"Our effort now is to contain them in that particular area," Dolorfino told reporters.

He said four navy gunboats had been dispatched to the Moro Gulf after intelligence operatives saw them Monday along the coast of Lanao del Sur province about 70 kilometres (43 miles) southeast from where he was abducted.

Police and military teams had also set up road blocks along highways in the area, he said, while President Gloria Arroyo's chief aide said the government was making Sinnott's rescue a top priority.

"We are not leaving any stone unturned for the safe recovery of Father Sinnott," Eduardo Ermita said in Manila.

Six armed gunmen kidnapped Sinnott from his home at the Missionary Society of Saint Columban compound in Pagadian City on Sunday night in what appeared to be a well-organised operation.

After driving him away from his home, they burnt the escape vehicle then transferred their bruised and battered captive to a motorised boat.

His abduction was the latest in a long list of kidnappings targeting foreign missionaries and tourists in the southern third of this majority Roman Catholic nation.

Most of those kidnappings have been carried out by the Abu Sayyaf militant group, listed by the United States as a terrorist organisation.

Authorities said the Abu Sayyaf may have abducted Sinnott, but they also suspect the bigger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which since 1978 has been fighting for an independent Muslim state in the southern Philippines.

Some senior military figures have said the kidnapping was likely for ransom, similar to other abductions in the restive Mindano region.

The head of the Columban missionaries in the Philippines, Peter O'Donoghue, said Tuesday the church had not yet received calls from any group claiming responsibility, while insisting Sinnott's freedom would not be bought.

"We won't give any ransom," O'Donoghue said, citing church policy, but he called on the abductors to show mercy.

"Whatever your motives are, please recognise the age and health condition of Father Sinnott and his love for needy children with disabilities. For these reasons, please release him quickly and safely."

O'Donoghue said there were deep concerns over Sinnott's health after he had quadruple heart bypass several years ago.

"He needs constant medication," O'Donoghue said.

The Abu Sayyaf and the MILF, as well as other unnamed Muslim armed gangs, are known to operate in Lanao and other parts of Mindanao.

The 12,000-strong MILF on Tuesday denied it was behind the abduction, and said it was willing to help troops track down the kidnappers. Related article: Rebels deny priest kidnapping.

"We are not involved in this," MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu told AFP.

Founded in the 1990s with seed money from Al-Qaeda, the Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for the country's worst terrorist attacks as well as kidnappings that in one case involved the beheading of an American captive.

Sinnott has spent about 40 years in the Philippines, first arriving in Mindanao in 1957 as a young missionary. After a stint elsewhere, he came back to the Philippines in 1976 and never left.

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Category: Mission Trip/Missionary Security

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