Army seeks help from rebels to free priest

Thu, Oct 15, 2009, 01:00

PHILIPPINE ARMED forces trying to free Irish missionary Michael Sinnott have asked the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), for their help to free the 78-year-old priest.

Hundreds of troops have sealed off the area in the southern region of Mindanao where gunmen believed to be pirates are holding Fr Sinnott. Fighting in the southern Philippines, where Muslims have fought a separatist uprising for years in what is a predominantly Catholic nation, has killed thousands and displaced more than half a million people.

The Columban priest was abducted at gunpoint from his home in Pagadian City on Sunday. Witnesses said the priest was bundled into a mini-van and later dragged to a boat.

“We’re trying to seal off the area where the priest was last seen over the last 24 hours,” Maj-Gen Ben Dolorfino, western Mindanao commander, said. Troops were trying to prevent the kidnappers from moving the priest to another location, he added.

It is looking increasingly likely that Fr Sinnott was abducted by a gang of pirates looking for a ransom, rather than a group allied to MILF or to the al-Qaeda-funded Abu Sayyaf. A local pirate helped the kidnap group bring Fr Sinnott across southwestern Mindinao.

Guingona Samal, also known as Commander Inggo, took Fr Sinnott across Ilana Bay. Maj-Gen Dolorfino said he believed Mr Samal was an accomplice rather than the mastermind of the operation. “His water craft was used because he owns the most powerful water craft in the area,” said the major-general.

“We have a complicated situation on the ground. These areas are heavily infected by the MILF and we don’t want to start any fight. So, we informed the MILF about the kidnapping and asked them to help free the hostage,” he added. Although the army and MILF have fought pitched battles in recent years in which hundreds have died, it now appears they are co-operating to try and release the Wexford-born cleric.

It looks possible that the kidnappers could be Muslim rebels who disobeyed a guerrilla edict prohibiting ransom kidnappings and other acts of banditry.

Fr Sinnott is believed to be near Sultan Naga Dimaporo township, where Moro guerrillas keep a heavy presence, he said. Getting the rebels to co-operate will ensure the safety of Fr Sinnott and avoid accidental clashes between them and troops, said Maj-Gen Dolorfino.

Mohaqher Iqbal, a senior leader of the 11,000-strong MILF and head of the rebels’ peace negotiating panel, mobilised his forces to pinpoint the exact location of the priest. “We’re ready to help the government recover the priest,” Mr Iqbal said.

Fr Angel Calvo, president of a group called Peace Advocates Zamboanga, called for Fr Sinnott’s release in a public statement run widely in the Filipino media.

“The value of Fr Sinnott’s life and work is beyond any ransom price. For its despicable and unspeakable evil and barbarity do we strongly condemn this kidnapping of a holy man,” he wrote.

The military is now focusing on stopping the kidnappers handing over Fr Sinnott to the Abu Sayyaf extremist group. This 400-strong terror outfit has been blamed for deadly bombings, beheadings and kidnappings of foreigners, including priests.

BISHOP Colm O’Reilly, chairman of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Commision for Missions, yesterday pleaded “with those who have influence to expedite the release of this true servant of the people”. Fr Sinnott, he said, had “dedicated his pastoral work to supporting the most vulnerable” and he commended the priest’s “courage and generosity in returning to active missionary service following major surgery”.

Bishop O’Reilly also appealed for the release of Goal volunteers Sharon Commins and Hilda Kawuki, who were kidnapped in Sudan last July.