Italian Catholic priest says Muslim kidnappers asked him to pray for them

An Italian Roman Catholic priest held hostage for six months by Muslim guerrillas in the Philippines said Wednesday he felt no ill will towards his captors, who sought his forgiveness and asked him to pray for them.

Father Giuseppe Pierantoni, released in the southern Philippines on Monday, said he initially felt angry at his kidnappers after he was seized on October 17 from his parish on the southern island of Mindanao.

But, speaking to AFP and his old parishoners here in a series of telephone calls, he said that after living with his captors for so long, he harboured them "no rancor or ill will".

"I understand their position," he said.

Pierantoni said his captors asked him to pray to protect them from any harm, specifically possible military or police assaults.

He said his captors also tried to reassure him not to be afraid, saying they were only after ransom money.

And when Pierantoni suffered bronchitis, "they bought me cough syrup and took care of me".

Pierantoni said his guards were mostly illiterate Muslim fighters aged 16 to 21 who loved to talk about religion and politics.

"They were simple people with simple dreams," he said.

The gunmen even acknowledged that kidnapping was forbidden by the Islamic religion, Pierantoni said.

"But they said that they were just forced by circumstance and even asked for my forgiveness."

They compared kidnapping with a Muslim eating pork despite the religious prohibition.

"We will be forced to eat pork just to survive," Pierantoni quoted his captors as saying.

The Philippine government says the kidnappers are rogue Muslim separatist guerrillas who call themselves the Pentagon gang.

Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said on Monday the rebels were forced to abandon the priest unharmed after "military pressure" that left about 15 kidnappers dead.

However Pierantoni told the media on Monday that he was escorted by his captors to a clearing near the southern town of Tungawan and handed over to authorities.

"There was no (violent) encounter," he said.

Those comments fuelled rumours that Pierantoni was released because a ransom payment had been made.

However Archbishop Fernando Capalla of the southern city of Davao issued a statement on Wednesday denying a ransom had been paid and saying that Pierantoni's release was aided by the efforts of police.

The recovery of Pierantoni leaves three foreigners still being held in the south.

Muslim gunmen are holding a South Korean man hostage on Mindanao while an American missionary couple and a Filipina nurse are held by Abu Sayyaf Muslim guerrillas on Basilan island