ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / November 1, 2009) – Manila has rejected a $2 million ransom demanded by kidnappers of an elderly Irish Catholic priest being held in the troubled region of Mindanao.
The Philippine military also said it would stick to the government’s no-ransom policy, but is ready to rescue Father Michael Sinnott, 79, who was taken by six gunmen on October 11 from his Columban missionary house in Pagadian City in Zamboanga del Sur province.
Colonel Romeo Brawner said: “No. The stand of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) is we will uphold the no-ransom policy (of the government). Our only focus is on the rescue operation. We are ready, capable to launch that rescue operation.”
Kidnappers on Saturday released a video showing the priest reading a newspaper dated October 22. Sinnott also said that his captors were demanding $2 million.
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Michael Martin said he spoke to the Sinnott family on Saturday and they were very relieved to hear that there is further evidence that the Wexford priest is alive.
The Irish Times also reported that Martin spoke to Irish Ambassador Richard O'Brien, who has over the past three weeks been working closely with Manila and has had meetings with representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group which is currently helping in securing the freedom of the priest, and other agencies working in the area.
The MILF was initially thought to have been behind the kidnapping, but a senior Sinn Fein figure Gerry Kelly said a criminal gang was now 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.
Kelly 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. Kelly was the first to confirm that the kidnappers were demanding ransom.
The Missionary Society of St. Columban to which Sinnott belongs said the priest had several heart surgeries in the past.
Martin said that no effort will be spared to secure the safe release of Sinnott as soon as possible. The Irish government said it will not pay ransom to the kidnappers.
Sinnott is believed being held in the boundary of Lanao del Norte province in northern Mindanao and Lanao del Sur in the Muslim autonomous region in central Mindanao. Troops have surrounded much of the area where the priest is being held while negotiations are going on.
The Missionary Society of St. Columban has appealed to US President Barack Obama to help secure the safe release of Sinnott, who is 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)