Trail of Irish priest grows cold

| November 8, 2009

NEARLY a month after the kidnapping, there has still been no actual sighting of Irish priest Michael Sinnott and his captors, a military ground commander said yesterday.

Troops are under instructions not to readily engage the kidnappers, believed to be rogue members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, if they are sighted, said Col. Benito de Leon, commander of the Army’s 104th Brigade based in Lanao del Norte.

This is to avoid endangering the life of life of the 79-year-old Columban priest who was abducted on October 11 in Pagadian City, he said.

Last week, Sinnott was seen in a video wherein he relayed his captors’ demand for a $2 million ransom.

De Leon said military intelligence reports show Sinnott and his kidnappers are in Lanao del Norte, but the location could not be pinpointed.

"So what we are doing is our troops are spread on the ground to prevent them from moving or leaving, if it’s true that they are here," said de Leon.

"At my level, there is no sighting that has reached me," he added.

Earlier, higher military officials have said the kidnappers and their hostage were sighted at least three times by informants, prompting them to conclude that the group is at the boundary of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur, said to be a bailiwick of the MILF.

De Leon said he could not say if the Crisis Management Committee, the multi-agency body that is tasked to secure Sinnott’s freedom, and the Philippine National Police have reports of actual sightings.

The committee last week said the kidnappers have not even established contact.

De Leon said a battalion, composed of at least 500 men, is deployed to "constriction areas." The 103rd Brigade and the PNP have also deployed men to man the cordon but De Leon could give numbers.

De Leon said his troops manning checkpoints are "static." He said it is difficult to move as movements might be misconstrued by the MILF as a violation of the cease-fire agreement between the government and the secessionist group.

"To the military (troops), the standing instruction is to conduct checkpoints to ensure that they (kidnappers) will not escape or will not move Fr. Sinnott, if they are here. Their focus is checkpoints and intelligence monitoring," he said.

Asked what if the kidnappers and Sinnott are sighted, De Leon said the military would coordinate with the police and the Crisis Management Committee "to decide upon what actions to do."

He said the troops were told not to engage the kidnappers in a firefight because Sinnott’s might be endangered "and we will be blamed for it."

De Leon said he was supporting the pronouncement of higher authorities who are pointing to rogue MILF rebels as responsible for the kidnapping.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno last week named Aloy Al Asree, commander of the MILF’s 113th Base Command, as behind the kidnapping.

But the MILF has said Asree was the one tasked by the MILF leadership to facilitate Sinnott’s release.

De Leon said if troops see a large grouping of MILF forces in the area, the soldiers would prevent the MILF forces from moving to populated areas and inform the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities.

He said the military needs clearance to engage MILF forces. "We hope it will not come to that if we can settle it through negotiations so that the peace talks will not collapse. But if they threaten the security of the communities, we will be forced to engage them," he said.

De Leon said under the cease-fire agreement, MILF rebels are not allowed to leave their temporary area of stay. But he said the rebels may leave their territory if they are not wearing their uniform and without their firearms.

De Leon said the MILF does not have a temporary area of stay in Lanao del Norte. He said their lone lair in the province, Camp Bilal, was overrun by his men in an offensive last year.

But the MILF has a temporary area of stay in Butig, Lanao de Sur, called Camp Bushra.

"If they are armed and in uniform, they should stay (inside their camp) to avoid any misunderstanding. If they go out, they should be cleared (by the CCCH) and they should not be in uniform, they should not be carrying firearms," he said.

Fr. Patrick O’Donoghue, regional superior of the Mission Society of St. Columban, said he is not aware of any negotiations for Sinnott’s release.

"I am not in negotiations with anyone… Nor, as far as I am aware, is anybody else in the Church in negotiations. Nor do I know of anyone else being in negotiation with those who are holding Fr. Mick," he said.

Members of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and the Columban Missionaries have repeatedly declined calls for a military rescue, preferring dialogue and negotiations.

O’Donoghue renewed his appeal for Sinnott’s safe release.

"We hope that whoever is holding Fr. Sinnott will consider his age, his health and the esteem in which he is held by so many people, and not detain him any longer," he said.

Sinnott had undergone quadruple heart bypass operation.

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Category: Mission Trip/Missionary Security

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