MANILA, Philippines – Philippine troops and navy gunboats were deployed Tuesday to surround suspected Muslim militants and pressure them to free an ailing Irish priest, who has been spotted with his captors in the country's south, a military general said Tuesday.
No rescue was imminent out of concern for the safety of the Rev. Michael Sinnott, 79, said regional military commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino.
Sinnott's abduction in southern Pagadian city in Zamboanga del Sur province Sunday was the latest hostage crisis to grip this predominantly Roman Catholic nation, which has grappled with decades-long Muslim separatist unrest in the south, the homeland of minority Muslims.
Military informants twice saw Sinnott and his captors wandering in a coastal area Monday. They were seen again Tuesday trekking in the mountainous hinterland near the coast, Dolorfino said.
Dolorfino said the kidnappers apparently took Sinnott for ransom.
"I'm sure they'll take care of him. They see dollar signs on his face," he said.
At least four navy gunboats and army troops moved to box them in but there was no immediate plan for a military rescue, Dolorfino said. Provincial officials formed a hostage crisis committee to try to identify negotiators who could try to persuade the kidnappers to free Sinnott without ransom, he said.
"We're trying to contain them in one area to be in a position of strength," Dolorfino told The Associated Press by telephone.
He declined to identify the kidnappers' location for security reasons but said it was in another province not far from Zamboanga del Sur. They were seen walking near a stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country's largest Muslim rebel group, he said, adding the kidnappers may have links with the Moro rebels.
Zamboanga del Sur lies about 490 miles southeast of Manila.
Ireland has sent a diplomat, Richard O'Brien, to Manila to monitor developments.
Dolorfino said a key concern was the health of Sinnott, who underwent heart surgery a few years ago. Colleagues said Sinnott needed to take medicine regularly.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, suspicion has fallen on the 11,000-strong Moro rebels or the smaller but more violent Abu Sayyaf extremist group, which in the past has abducted foreigners, including priests.