MANILA, Philippines – Philippine forces searched on land and sea Thursday but were unable to find any sign of a former Italian Roman Catholic missionary who was abducted by gunmen in the south, where he has lived for years despite a history of violent attacks on fellow Italian priests, officials said.
At least six men, some armed with rifles, dragged Rolando del Torchio from his pizza restaurant into a van on Wednesday and then fled from Dipolog city in Zamboanga del Norte province in motor boats, city police chief Superintendent Ranie Hachuela said.
Del Torchio's abduction came after two Canadian tourists, a Norwegian and a Filipino woman were kidnapped last month from a marina on Samal Island in Davao del Norte province, also in the south. There has been no trace of the four.
Long-running security problems have hounded the region, which has bountiful resources and promises but is hamstrung by poverty and an array of insurgents and outlaws.
Hachuela said security cameras caught images of some of the gunmen and that may help authorities identify them. They showed the Italian man, his back on the floor, being dragged away by the kidnappers, who held him by the feet.
The kidnappers also tried to seize two Filipino customers but they resisted and a gunman barked an order that the two be set free because they already had their target, said Leonor Rabino, a Dipolog city information officer.
A restaurant staffer tried to help del Torchio but one of the kidnappers pointed a gun at him, Rabino said. He said the Italian was very friendly and spoke the local Visayan dialect.
Air force helicopters, navy patrol boats and army and police forces were deployed to search coastal areas and suspected hideouts, including in southern Sulu province, where al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants have held hostages for ransom in jungle camps, but del Torchio was not immediately found.
Police said they have not discovered who is behind the latest kidnappings.
Del Torchio was an agriculturist who became a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, a Catholic group founded in Italy which has about 500 members in 17 countries. He helped farmers hone their skills and set up cooperatives in poor communities, according to a colleague, Father Gianni Re.
"We're praying that he will be freed as soon as possible and in good health," Re said by phone, adding that del Torchio has helped many poor people in the southern Philippines, where he has chosen to stay rather than in his Italian hometown of Angera.
Re said del Torchio left the Catholic mission several years ago and has lived in the southern Mindanao region even though three Catholic missionaries from the institute have been kidnapped and two others were brutally killed during the past three decades.
Re, who heads the institute in the Philippines, said 10 Italian missionaries from the group would stay in the southern Philippines despite the risks.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.