MANILA - The Philippine government on Monday activated a crisis management committee to secure the freedom of a 78-year-old Irish priest who was kidnapped by still unidentified suspects in his house in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur Sunday night.
Chief Superintendent Felizardo Serapio, Philippine National Police Central Mindanao regional director, said the crisis committee led by Aurora Gov. Aurora Enerio-Cerilles is eyeing six groups behind the kidnapping of Columban missionary Fr. Michael Sinnott.
He said authorities have yet to receive a ransom demand for Sinnott.
At least six suspects “forcibly entered” the Columban House in Gatas district around 7:20 p.m. and seized Sinnot who was forced into a mini-van, said Maj. David Hontiveros, spokesman of the military’s Western Mindanao Command.
“The suspects forced the priest onto a mini-van and headed towards Sta Lucia (district) where they burned the mini-van and transferred to a boat and fled,” said Hontiveros. He said intelligence operatives are hot on the heels of the kidnappers.
One witness, Marieta Burok, 53, said she saw the priest being led to a motorized boat wearing only jogging pants. "His front and back were bloodied. He was dragged to a waiting pump boat," Burok said.
The Irish embassy in Manila was not immediately available for comment.
Pagadian Archbishop Emmanuel Cabajar urged Sinnott's captors to free the priest, whose health he said has been fragile after he had heart bypass surgery in 2008.
"I am concerned about his safety. I am calling on his captors to free him. Please do not hurt him," Cabajar said, adding that the Irish cleric was well-loved by the community he has served for decades.
"I am saddened because he has done so much for the people of Pagadian," Cabajar said.
Zamboanga Archbishop Romulo Valles also expressed sadness over the kidnapping. "It is sad to note that they (bandits) are still there and another kidnapping has happened again," he said in an ABS-CBN interview.
In its website, the Columban Missionaries said Sinnott was snatched around 7:30 p.m. by five suspects outside his home “as he was taking an evening stroll in the garden.” The group said the suspects’ getaway vehicle was a pick-up type.
“The Bishop of Pagadian, Manny Cabajar, and Fr. Pat O’Donoghue (Columban's regional director) are in touch with local authorities following up the kidnapping. We request your prayers for the safe return (of) Fr. Michael,” the statement said.
Sinnott, a native of Barntown. Co. Wexford, has been assigned twice in Mindanao. The first was in 1957, or three years after he was ordained, and served until 1966 when he was re-assigned to the theology staff in Dalgan Park, Navan in Ireland.
“He returned to Philippines in 1976 where he has served in a variety of pastoral and administrative roles,” the Columban Missionaries said, adding that since 1998, Sinnot has been involved with the Centre and School for Special Children which he established.
Described as "jolly" with a grasp of the local dialect, Sinnott founded a local charity called Hangop Kabataan Foundation, which helps provide medical care to children with disabilities.
He has no known enemies and is said to be popular among the locals, who contribute generously to his fundraising activities, police said.
Lustestica said the provincial Crisis Management Committee convened Sunday to find ways to secure the freedom of Sinnott. He said several armed groups are known to be operating in Pagadian City and in the province, including terrorist group Abu Sayyaf and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The Abu Sayyaf is behind a number of high-profile kidnapping and bombings in the South. The group was tagged as responsible for the kidnapping of Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi in Damataling town, also in Zamboanga del Sur in June 2007. Bossi was released a month later.
“We have not specifically identified the perpetrators but there is a traditional group that is doing this. We can just surmise at the moment because there are traditional groups who do this, they also go to a traditional place,” said Lustestica when asked if there are indications that the Abu Sayyaf was responsible for the latest kidnapping.
“Right now, we have yet to pinpoint specifically whatever group it is so until we verify it we cannot say which specific group although we have suspects. There is a traditional group that is doing this,” the official said.
Pressed who are the traditional groups involved in the kidnapping in the province, Lustestica just said they are members of kidnap-for-ransom groups “that have turned kidnapping [into] a livelihood or have turned kidnapping as a cottage industry here in Mindanao.”
Lustestica said they have yet to determine Sinnott's exact location after receiving conflicting reports that the kidnappers headed towards the Lanao provinces, Zamboanga del Sur and Zamboanga del Norte.
“There are other conflicting reports because their boats were small and there are big waves last night. As of now, there are no confirming reports that they have indeed reached the coastal places in the areas of Lanao provinces that were referred to last night,” he said.
He condemned the kidnapping, saying that Sinnott had recently undergone a heart bypass. “We cannot think of any (motive) because what will they do with a priest who is 78 years old. They are unbelievable. They did not even have a compassion with the priest, an Irish and 78 who has undergone bypass operation. They are heartless if they will just kidnap him for no reason at all,” he said.
“Most probably, they wanted money out of their actions...They have no conscience and have resorted to kidnapping just to earn money," he added.
Lustestica assured that the provincial Crisis Management Committee, which includes the military and the police as members, “is doing all it can so that we can ensure the safe release and recovery of Fr. Mike Sinnott.”
The official said Sinnott has made “big sacrifices” during his stay in Pagadian City. With reports from Agence France-Presse and Jewel Reyes, ABS-CBN Zamboanga