Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kidnapped Irish cleric freed in the Southern Philippines

A kidnapped Irish Catholic missioner, Father Michael Sinnott, has been freed and handed over to government people Thursday, November 12, 2009 in Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines after a month in captivity, said a senior Muslim rebel leader, Mohagher Iqbal, whose group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, helped in freeing the elderly cleric. (Mindanao Examiner Photo)

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / November 12, 2009) – A kidnapped Irish Catholic missioner was freed early Thursday in Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines after a month in captivity, a senior Muslim rebel leader, whose group helped in freeing the elderly cleric.

Mohagher Iqbal, chief peace negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said Father Michael Sinnott, 79, was handed over to his government counterpart Rafael Seguis at around 4.22 a.m. at the coastal village of Sangali.

“We are very happy with the recovery of Father Michael Sinnott. It was a delicate operation and the priest is freed. We exerted great pressure to the group holding the priest and so was the family and relatives of those who held Father Sinnott,” Iqbal told independent regional newspaper the Mindanao Examiner.

Iqbal said no ransom was paid for Sinnott’s release. “Kidnapping is illegal in Islam and Father Sinnott’s recovery did not involve any money,” he said.

The kidnappers originally demanded $2 million for the release of the missionary, but Manila said it would not pay ransom.

Sinnott was taken by six gunmen on October 11 from his Columban missionary house in Pagadian City in Zamboanga del Sur province and brought to Lanao province.

Western Mindanao military chief Major General Benjamin Dolorfino, who took custody of Sinnott, said the priest is frail, but is okay. “He is okay and was examined by our doctors in Western Mindanao Command headquarters,” he said in a separate interview.

He said the priest was handed over to government people headed by Seguis and Army Brigadier General Rey Sealana, chairman of the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities.

Dolorfino said the priest told him that it took them 9 hours by boat to Zamboanga City. “Before Father Sinnott was freed, the kidnappers brought him to a mountain hideout and later transferred him at a mangrove area, probably in Lanao, for 10 days until he was released,” Dolorfino said.

He said the MILF played a vital role in the recovery of the priest. “This will have a big impact in the peace talks between the MILF and the government. This is confidence-building measure and we are happy that Father Sinnott is finally a free man,” Dolorfino said.

Sinnott spoke with reporters at a Philippine Air Force base in Zamboanga City and told them his ordeal during his captivity. He said he was treated well by his captors, who he identified as members of a “lost command” headed by Kikay. “They said they were the Lost Command and the one in-charge is Kikay. The first group in the swamp they were 7 of them and the second group – only two had guarded me.”

“They treated me very well, conditions were very primitive and we were living in the open under vinyl and they did their best to make things as easy as possible for me those who were guarding me,” the priest said.

“On the first 10 days, we were in the swampy area. It was a small area and you cannot walk – it’s difficult. Just slept on the hammock, there was nothing else. When we got to the forest, the one in-charge caused a pathway of about 10 meters and I walked up and down there. The first 10 days there was no place for walking around,” he said.

Sinnot said he was supposed to be freed last week, but bad weather prevented his captors from releasing him.

“On the 4th of November, we were supposed to be released and after about 20 minutes hiking we were told that there is a typhoon on the way and it’s too high for the boat so we came back. Then last Monday, they said they were just waiting for the signal, so Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday the signal came so we came out. The first time we changed from the swampy area to forest area, they told me that I was going out free so when I got there so I said now I will not leave until I am free, but they were actually going out, but even last night I was not sure,” he said at a news conference.

The priest said his captors told him that he was kidnapped because of ransom. “They said they want to get money, to get ransom and I do not know if they got money,” he said.

Sinnott said he wanted to return to his missionary home in Pagadian City, but would discuss this with the Missionary Society of St. Columban. He also thanked those who helped secure his freedom. “I hope I will be going back to Pagadian, I do not know, but that has to be discussed with many people besides my self,” he said.

“I would like to thank everybody who helped to get me free and every one of my friends that I know prayed for me while I was in captivity.”

The MILF was initially thought to have been behind the kidnapping, but a senior Sinn Fein figure Gerry Kelly said a criminal gang was believed to be responsible. The MILF is currently negotiating peace with Manila, although it has been fighting for independence in Mindanao the past three decades.

Kelley and former Downing St chief of staff Jonathan Powell are involved in behind-the-scenes talks in an attempt to secure the ailing Columban missioner. It was unknown if they have roles in the release of the priest.

The Missionary Society of St. Columban to which Sinnott belongs said the priest had several heart surgeries in the past.

The Missionary Society of St. Columban has previously appealed to US President Barack Obama to help secure the safe release of Sinnott, who was the third Irish missioner to be kidnapped in Mindanao since 1997. Father Des Hartford was held by Moro rebels for 12 days, and in 2001, Father Rufus Hally, a missioner from Waterford, was shot dead during an attempted abduction in the volatile region.

In June 2007, gunmen also kidnapped an Italian missioner Giancarlo Bossi, of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, in Payao town in Zamboanga del Sur province. Bossi, then 57, was freed more than a month later after private negotiators paid a huge ransom. Bossi’s kidnappers had demanded P50 million for his safe release.

Philippine authorities said Bossi was kidnapped while celebrating mass in the village of Bulawan by brothers Akiddin and Wanning Abdusallam, both rogue members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf.

Bossi was the third Italian priest kidnapped in southern Philippines decade.
Rogue MILF rebels kidnapped Fr Luciano Benedetti, 62, in Zamboanga del Norte province in 1998 and held for nearly 10 weeks until he was freed in exchange for a huge government ransom.

In 2001, renegade MILF rebels and members of the bandit group called Pentagon Gang also snatched Fr Giuseppe Pierantoni as the 51-year-old from Bologna said mass in the parish church of Dimataling town in Zamboanga del Sur.

The priest was freed after six months in captivity in exchange for an unspecified ransom, but he claimed to have escaped from his kidnappers.

Philippine negotiators have in the past themselves paid ransom to the kidnappers for the release of kidnapped victims. Six Filipino teachers kidnapped this year in Zamboanga City and Zamboanga Sibugay and three international aid workers seized in Sulu province were also freed in exchange for millions of pesos in ransom. (Mindanao Examiner)

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