Heavily armed men barged into a Catholic convent and kidnapped a 78-year old Irish priest late Sunday in the volatile southern Philippines before spiriting him away in a motor boat, an official said.

The six gunmen entered the Columban House in Pagadian city, Zamboanga del Sur province, and dragged Michael Sinnott into a van in front of his horrified aides, regional police commander Chief Supt. Angelo Sunglao said.

"They could not do anything because the abductors had powerful weapons," Sunglao told The Associated Press.

The van was later found abandoned and burned near the convent. The kidnappers then took the priest away by sea on board a motor boat toward a town called Tukuran, Sunglao said, citing fishermen who saw the abduction.

Police have been dispatched to pursue the kidnappers and rescue Sinnott, he said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, but suspicion could fall on Muslim guerrillas who have been fighting for a separate homeland in this region of the predominantly Catholic Philippines for decades and have in the past kidnapped foreigners, including priests.

Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants and insurgents from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front have a presence in the vast Zamboanga peninsula but Sunglao said it was too early to pinpoint any group.

Sinnott's group, the Missionary Society of St. Columban, confirmed his abduction, saying he was taking an evening stroll in the convent's garden when he was taken by the gunmen. The group appealed for prayers for his safe recovery.

Sinnott has worked in the Philippines for decades. The group said he was first assigned in the southern Philippines between 1957-66, then returned in 1976. He has been involved in a school for handicapped children since 1998.

Several priests have been kidnapped in recent years in the region.

An Italian priest, Giancarlo Bossi, was kidnapped allegedly by members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf in nearby Zamboanga Sibugay province in June 2007 and freed after 39 days. The rebel front denied any involvement. The government then denied speculation that a ransom was paid to win Bossi's release.

Another Italian priest, Guisseppe Pierantoni, was abducted by a gang with links to Muslim rebels as he celebrated mass in a church in Zamboanga del Sur in 2001. He was safely rescued by troops after six months.

In 1998, a third Italian priest, Luciano Benedetti, was kidnapped by suspected Muslim militants in Zamboanga del Norte province then freed after several weeks, reportedly in exchange for a huge ransom.

The 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been engaged in on and off peace talks with the government, has denied any involvement in kidnappings for ransom or any alliance with the smaller and more violent Abu Sayyaf.

The Abu Sayyaf is believed to have about 400 fighters. U.S. and Philippine security officials say it has received funds from Al Qaeda and is suspected of sheltering militants from the larger Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah.