Kidnapped Italian Priest Freed in Philippines

MANILA (Reuters) - A police special forces unit freed an Italian priest in the southern Philippines on Monday, when a Muslim kidnap gang holding him fled during a night raid, officials said.

Father Guiseppe Pierantoni, looking pale and emaciated after almost six months in the hands of former Muslim rebels known as the Pentagon group, attributed his safe release to the "miracle of prayer."

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, speaking after meeting the priest, ordered the police and armed forces to step up operations against kidnap gangs nationwide and expressed the hope that an American missionary couple and a Philippine nurse held by another Muslim group would be freed soon.

"We will not rest until this scourge has been wiped out of our land," Arroyo told a news conference in the capital Manila, where Pierantoni was flown after his release on the island of Mindanao.

The Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim kidnap gang linked by the United States to Saudi-born radical Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, have been holding the missionary couple and Philippine nurse on the nearby island of Basilan since May.

Pierantoni, 44, was seized on October 17 from his rectory in Zamboanga del Sur province on Mindanao, 800 km (500 miles) south of Manila.

Government officials said he was rescued near Tungawan, about 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Zamboanga City, by a special police operations group, around 2 a.m. on Monday.

"Before the special action force could engage the Pentagon members in a fire fight, Pentagon members scampered for safely, leaving in the process Father Pierantoni," Interior Secretary Joey Lina said in an interview with a local television station.


Local residents said a ransom had most likely changed hands, but police insisted the priest had been rescued.

"Two days ago, a massive operation was conducted in the Zamboanga peninsula which led to the recovery of Father Pierantoni...there was never a ransom paid," National Police chief Director General Leandro Mendoza said.

Arroyo is holding peace talks with Muslim separatists in the south of her mainly Roman Catholic country, notably the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The Pentagon gang is believed to be made up of former members of MILF, which has denied involvement in Pierantoni's abduction.

Officials say Pierantoni thought he was being held by the Abu Sayyaf, which says it is fighting for an Islamic homeland but has made a name for itself kidnapping foreigners and Filipinos for ransom.

"It was, I think, a miracle of prayer what happened to me," Pierantoni told a news conference in Manila.

"I'm a bit confused and also very tired because yesterday, we walked for 12 hours," he said, adding it was a miracle he had escaped injury both during his ordeal and the rescue operation.

Arroyo welcomed the release and ordered the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to step up their efforts to hunt down kidnap gangs.

"To the PNP and AFP, my marching orders: Give them no quarter. Annihilate these criminal gangs. I appeal to the people, to our Muslim brothers, to help us end this scourge of kidnapping," she said.

For two months, U.S. special forces have been training Philippine special forces hunting the Abu Sayyaf on Basilian. The training, a significant extension of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, covers counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering.

"I think it is a matter of days that we will be able to get the three (hostages)," Interior Secretary Lina said, without elaborating.

Another joint military exercise between the two countries is due to start on April 22 on the northern island of Luzon. A total of 2,665 U.S. troops and 2,900 Philippine soldiers are expected to participate in the exercise, that will last until May 6.

The Philippine military say this is part of regular annual exercises aimed at exchanging skills and techniques.

The United States blames bin Laden's al Qaeda network for the September 11 attacks in which Muslim radicals killed almost 3,000 people by crashing hijacked planes into U.S. landmarks.

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