Irish priest seized in Mindanao

Mindanao, Philippines - An elderly Irish priest has been seized by gunmen in the troubled southern Philippines, local police say.

They say six attackers, said to be Islamic militants, took Father Michael Sinnott, 78, at gunpoint in Pagadian City, on Mindanao island.

They then fled with the priest in a minivan before boarding a boat.

No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The Philippine army has been fighting the Abu Sayyaf Islamic militant group in the region.

Father Michael, a priest from the Missionaries of St Columban, was seized by the gunmen at his city residence on Sunday, police say.

The getaway van was later found abandoned and set on fire in a coastal area.

"We've alerted all our units as well as the military to be on the lookout and intercept the gunmen," Angelo Sunglao, police chief in western Mindanao region, told reporters.

"We can't speculate yet on who is behind the kidnapping, but the Abu Sayyaf is known to be operating near the area," he added.

Deadly group

The Philippines director of the Columban missionaries, Father Pat O'Donoghue, said Father Michael was "robust for his age" but had undergone a heart bypass operation four years ago.

"The concern that I would have is that if he does not have his medication this would be very serious thing for him, especially given the shock," Father Pat told the PA news agency.

"It must be a very shocking thing to find yourself bundled into a car and taken away."

A friend of Father Michael's said he was "weak and old" but was actively involved in interfaith projects.

"They couldn't do anything because the men were armed with weapons. They pleaded but the men still took Father Michael. We are praying for his safety," the AFP news agency quoted the unnamed woman as saying.

"Father Sinnott is a good man. We don't know why he was kidnapped."

Abu Sayyaf is one of the smallest but deadliest militant groups in the largely Roman Catholic Philippines.

Established in the early 1990s, it has kidnapped dozens of foreign aid workers, missionaries and tourists in the south.

It was blamed for the country's most deadly bomb attacks, on a ferry in 2004 that killed more than 100 people.