Priest says Bossi kidnapping likely election-related

Fr. Adriano Agustino,  parish priest of San Pablo Parish in Payao town until Fr. Bossi took over on April 20 this year, ruled out all other motives but ransom.       

"I strongly believe that the motive behind the kidnapping was for ransom as a form of fund-raising by some losing candidates," Agustino said. He is now serving as assistant parish priest of Diplahan town, some 35 kilometers away from Payao.

"I know the area (Payao) so well and the local idiosyncracies of the people living in the area as their parish priest for six years," said the diocesan priest whose convent in Payao was strafed by unidentified armed men during the 2004 elections.

If he had stayed on for the elections, Agustino said he still would not be a potential kidnap victim because "I am a small fish and they cannot make money from me."
"It is just so very unfortunate that Fr. Bossi was the most likely victim of the elections violence spill-over by some losing candidates who wanted to recoup their expenses from the last elections,” he said.

Being new to the place, the kidnappers must have thought Fr. Bossi has foreign connections who would pay ransom, he said.


The Catholic Church, however, has a policy against paying ransom.

The 57-year-old Bossi, a member of the PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) was seized by 10 armed men while on his way to say mass in Barangay Bulawan, Payao at about 9:30 of Sunday morning, June 10.      

Reports indicated that the suspects were sighted near the shores of Tungawan, Zamboanga Sibugay, some 70 kilometers from the place where Fr. Bossi  was abducted.   

Col. Godofredo Paderanga of the Army's 1st Infantry Battalion based in Pulacan, Pagadian City was quoted saying the kidnapping was a handiwork of some members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The MILF denied involvement in the kidnapping and pledged to help in the rescue operations.

Lawyer Abdul Dataya, chair of the MILF peace panel’s Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG)  said two of his core members are being sent to coordinate with government troops.

The government and the MILF have been talking peace since January 1997. The peace talks have been interrupted by two major wars under Presidents Joseph Estrada in 2000 and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2003 but the two panels are optimistic they could forge a peace agreement soon, after resolving the issue on ancestral domain. 

Talks are expected to resume in Kuala Lumpur, a few weeks from now. Malaysia has been facilitating the talks since 2001 and has in fact sent a contingent of Malaysians to lead the International Monitoring Team that ensures the implementation of the ceasefire agreement.

Paderanga said some witnesses have identified one of the armed men as Awing Abdusallam, the brother of Akiddin Abdusallam, a self-styled Moro rebel leader associated with the MILF.     

But one of the provincial leaders of the MILF who requested not to be named because he is not authorized to issue statements on behalf of the organization, denied the allegation.

In a telephone interview, the MILF leader said that at the time Fr. Bossi was kidnapped, "Awing Abdusallam was in our place working in his farm".     

He also stressed it is not the practice of the MILF to conduct kidnap-for-ransom activities in order to raise funds as it is “against our religion and policies as a revolutionary organization.”

"We are asking our police and military to be cautious in naming suspects in the kidnapping," he said, adding that as a result of the military operations in their community, the livelihood of the people has been adversely affected.

He said the children in the village hide when they hear the drone of planes and helicopters.

An Orion spy plane from the United States and other Philippine military aircraft are flying over Zamboanga Peninsula in search of the Italian priest.

Armed Forces Chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said the spy plane was an unmanned surveillance aircraft which would help provide better aerial views of the area.

Provincial police personnel under Senior Supt. Francisco Cristobal and troops from the Army's 102nd Brigade under Col. Jovencio Magalso have joined forces to search for the kidnapped priest.

Cristobal believes that Bossi and his abductors are still in the Sibugay area. He said they have tapped the people's help in locating the victim.

"But we are not certain on the motives of the kidnapping," Cristobal said during a case conference held a day after the kidnapping.

Religious leaders were also trying to establish contact with Fr. Bossi's kidnappers to negotiate for his release but the efforts have yielded nothing so far, said Army 1st Infantry Division spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Roberto Rabasio.

Rebasio said the military is not in favour of these moves.

"I cannot elaborate on the efforts being undertaken by the religious leaders. These are Catholic leaders, they want to help the other sectors (in securing the freedom of  Fr. Bossi)," the Army official said when asked what these efforts are.

Fr. Giani Sandalo, PIME regional head and other Pime priests met with military and police authorities in Zamboanga Sibugay on June 13 for updates on Fr. Bossi's kidnapping.     

Fr. Bossi is the third Italian priest kidnapped in Zamboanga Peninsula in the last ten years.

Fr Luciano Benedetti, also a PIME priest, was abducted on September 8, 1998, in Sibuco, Zamboanga del Norte. His abductors released him after 68 days of captivity.

Fr Giuseppe Pierantoni, a missionary of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was kidnapped in October 2001 by Pentagon group while celebrating mass in Dimataling, Zamboanga del Sur and was freed six months later. (Elvie Villarido-Manaytay is editor in chief of Sibugay Tribune while her husband Tony is convenor of Lihuk Katawhan in Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay)