MANILA, Philippines – A representative of gunmen holding an ailing Irish priest hostage in the southern Philippines made contact Thursday with his Roman Catholic mission, a military commander said.
Following the telephone call, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino said authorities believed that the 79-year-old Rev. Michael Sinnott was being held in the coastal town of Sultan Naga Dimaporo in Lanao del Norte province, where Muslim separatists are active.
Troops surrounded the area where Sinnott was held and identified four of the six kidnappers, he said.
Dolorfino, who is the commander for the area, refused to elaborate on the conversation between the representative and Sinnott's Missionary Society of St. Columban.
Dolorfino has urged the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels, who have been fighting for a separate homeland for minority Muslims in the predominantly Catholic nation's south, to cooperate in freeing Sinnott.
Rebel leader Mohagher Iqbal promised to help Wednesday amid concern for Sinnott's health. The priest has recently undergone heart bypass surgery and did not have his medicines on him when gunmen dragged him away from the garden of his house.
"Our immediate concern now is the medication of Father Sinnott," Dolorfino told The Associated Press.
Authorities were to distribute flyers Friday in the province and in Pagadian city, across the bay from where Sinnott was kidnapped on Sunday, with telephone numbers the kidnappers can call to arrange for medicine to be sent to Sinnott, Dolorfino said.
He said the kidnappers apparently took Sinnott to an area under the control of a local Moro rebel commander.
"The least he can do is to drive away the kidnappers if he is not involved, and the most he can do is to help us capture them," Dolorfino said of the rebel commander.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the group was trying to verify reports that Sinnott was in an area of its control. He insisted, however, that the rebels were not holding the priest.
The rebels and the government just a few months ago fought major clashes that killed hundreds and displaced more than half a million people. A truce eased the fighting, and the government has used the cease-fire committee to ask the rebels for help in ending the latest hostage crisis.
Foreign priests in the volatile southern Philippines have been targeted in the past. In 2001, kidnappers fatally shot fellow Irish Columban Rev. Rufus Halley when he tried to escape. In June 2007, kidnappers with links to Moro rebels held an Italian priest for 33 days.
In Ireland, Foreign Affairs spokesman and Labor Party President Michael D. Higgins issued an emotional appeal for Sinnott's release and asked the abductors to provide him with medicine.
An Irish Catholic bishop, Colm O'Reilly, said special prayers for Sinnott's release will be read at Sunday Mass throughout Ireland.