Thursday, November 12, 2009

Freed priest says Filipino captors wanted money

MANILA, Philippines — A 79-year-old Irish priest said he hiked through jungles, survived raging seas and slept in a swamp under a tarpaulin before his captors released him Thursday after a month, apparently without getting the ransom they demanded.

The Rev. Michael Sinnott said he was never harmed but complained of uncertainty of being released amid arduous conditions and a monotonous diet of sandwiches and rice.

Irish leaders hailed his freedom as an answer to prayers of millions in both countries, while the leadership of a large Muslim rebel group took credit for persuading the kidnapers to free Sinnott.

"Because I am a bit old and I found hiking a bit difficult at times, I think that they'd be glad to kidnap a younger man next time," a smiling Sinnott told reporters after being greeted by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at a Manila airport.

Six gunmen abducted Sinnott, a longtime missionary in the southern Philippines, on Oct. 11 from his home in the Mindanao region, home to several armed groups fighting for Muslim self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

The abductors took him by boat and then by foot across the jungle, each day promising to release him in exchange for money.

"For the first 10 days, we were in a swampy area. It was a small place. I could not walk around," Sinnott said. "I was just sleeping on the hammock or sitting, doing nothing else."

Later on in the jungle, a gunman cut a pathway about 10 yards (meters) wide "and I walked up and down there," he said. "They did their best to make things as easy as possible for me."

Sean McDonagh, a priest in Navan, northwest of Dublin, who has known Sinnott for 45 years, told RTE radio in Ireland it was "a minor miracle" that the missionary survived his ordeal after quadruple bypass heart surgery four years ago.

In a video released Oct. 31, Sinnott said the abductors were demanding $2 million for his freedom. He said Thursday that he was not sure that any money changed hands, and the Irish and Philippine governments said no ransom was paid.

Officials had feared Sinnott could suffer a fatal heart attack because he was still recovering from his surgery. Rumors persisted he had died in captivity.

Philippine security officials blamed Sinnott's kidnapping on members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group that has entered into peace talks with the government.

The rebels denied involvement. Their leader, Mohagher Iqbal, said his group applied "pressure and our moral authority" on the kidnappers to release Sinnott.

"We did our part. It's a goodwill and humanitarian gesture, without any other consideration," Iqbal said.

Sinnott told reporters in Manila his abductors belonged to a "lost command," a term referring to former rebels who have turned to banditry.

However, Ireland Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said the Irish government talked directly with Moro rebel leaders and were left in no doubt that Sinnott was held by a rebel faction.

Sinnott said he was held by two groups of kidnappers and they told him they had no other means of getting arms and bullets except by money from ransom. They told him they were fighting for an independent Islamic state, he said.

Martin said paying a ransom "would only have jeopardized the vital work of aid workers and missionaries around the world. It would also place other Irish citizens in danger."

A Philippine government adviser, Jesus Dureza, denied speculation that Sinnott was released in time for a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Manila on Thursday.

The Philippines has grappled with a spate of kidnappings this year, most of them blamed on al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants. On Monday, the militants were suspected of beheading a kidnapped schoolteacher on nearby Jolo Island after his family failed to raise enough ransom money.

Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Teresa Cerojano in Manila and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.

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