Military closes in on priest's abductors

Oct. 14, 2009 at 11:59 AM
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MANILA, Philippines, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- Military and police in the Philippines say they are sealing off any escape routes for the kidnappers of a frail Irish priest after three reported sightings.

Navy gunboats have been deployed off the coast and roadblocks set up in the area of Lanao del Sur, one of five provinces in the troubled Muslim autonomous region in the southern island of Mindanao, according to a report in the Manila Times.

The exact location of the sightings has not been given out in case media reports jeopardize plans by authorities to capture the kidnappers, suspected of being Muslim militants, Maj. Gen. Ben Dolorfino, military chief for the area of the southern Philippines, told media.

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

Lanao del Sur province is about 45 miles southeast from where Michael Sinnott, 79, was snatched by six gunmen.

Sinnott was taking a walk in his garden when the men stormed his residence Sunday near the southern city of Pagadian, police said just after the kidnapping. He was hustled into a waiting van that later was found abandoned along the coast, leading police to believe he then was taken away by speedboat, the Manila Times reported.

No group has claimed responsibility for the latest kidnapping, but suspicion has fallen on Muslim rebels and Abu Sayyaf militants blamed for previous kidnappings for ransom, according to the Manila Times report. Abu Sayyaf, in translation meaning Sword of God, is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State.

The southern island of Mindanao is the country's second largest and easternmost island. The region, with politically semiautonomous areas, is home to most of the country's Muslim, or Moro, populations.

Sinnott, a native of Wexford, Ireland, was ordained in 1954 with the Missionary Society of St. Columban, which has been working in the Philippines since 1929. The Columbans have trained many Filipino priests who in turn have gone out on missionary work to other countries, according to the society's Web site.

Father Mick, as he is called, has been in the Mindanao area since first arriving in the Philippines in 1957, except for a period in Ireland as rector of the Columban seminary, a short stint studying liturgy in Paris and a few years in Manila as the vice director of the Philippine region.

Sinnott's work has mostly been with handicapped children.

Police and the head of the Columbans in the Philippines, Father Peter O'Donoghue, are particularly concerned for Sinnott's safety because he underwent a quadruple heart bypass operation in 2005 and still needs a supply of medicine to maintain his health.

Police believe Sinnott's kidnapping is a typical abduction-for-ransom, but O'Donoghue said that they had not received calls from any group claiming responsibility. O'Donoghue also insisted that the church would not pay any ransom for Sinnott's freedom.

Local and regional Muslim leaders have appealed for the release of Sinnott, according to a report on the Web site of the Philippine Star newspaper.

Ustadz Faried Solaiman Adas, head of the Madaris Education Bureau in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said all of the bureau's more than 600 Islamic missionaries are on notice to help police with any information about who the abductors may be and where they are located.

"Islam abhors kidnappings," Adas said in the Star's report. "For genuine Muslims that fear Allah, kidnapping is a diabolic act. We condemn this latest abduction of a Catholic priest in Pagadian City."

Adas said members of their bureau, which has preachers conducting peace education classes in remote towns in the autonomous region, are sad about the abduction. "Islam has strong teachings on respect for religious leaders, regardless of whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims," Adas said.

The Columbans suffered a previous kidnapping in August 2001 that resulted in the death of Father Rufus Halley, murdered by his five abductors along a lonely stretch of coastal road near where the authorities are now looking for Sinnott.

In a note on the St. Columbans' Web site, Father O'Donoghue is asking people to pray for Sinnott's safe return.

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