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Italian priest kidnapping raises militant alarm; Philippine police kill man who took fellow bus passenger hostage

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MANILA, Oct 8, (AFP): Gunmen seized a retired Italian priest in the strife-torn southern Philippines, authorities said Thursday, the latest abduction blamed on an infamous Islamic militant group that specialises in kidnappings-for-ransom.

Rolando del Torchio, 56, was the fourth foreigner kidnapped in the region in three weeks, and brings to eight the number believed to be held by the Abu Sayyaf group, listed by the United States as a terrorist organisation. The kidnappings show the Abu Sayyaf is regaining strength in the south, a desperately poor region home to most of the nation’s Muslim minority, after a USbacked military campaign was scaled down this year, analysts said. “This shows that the Abu Sayyaf is not only regaining its old shape and form, it is also reaching a new level of sophistication,” Rodolfo Mendoza, a senior analyst at the Philippine Institute for Peace Violence and Terrorism Research, told AFP.

During its heyday in the 2000s, the Abu Sayyaf ransomed off dozens of foreigners from raids as far off as Malaysia’s Sipadan island, until its key leaders died in military assaults aided by the United States. Mendoza noted how in the most recent kidnappings, the Abu Sayyaf struck on opposite ends of the main southern island of Mindanao, an unusually wide arc for their raids for recent years.

On Wednesday night, six suspects seized Del Torchio from a pizza shop he ran in the sleepy port city of Dipolog, then fled by speedboat towards Jolo, the Abu Sayyaf’s island stronghold on the country’s southwestern tip.

Dipolog is about 400 kilometres (240 miles) from Jolo, a small island where the militants enjoy support of local communities and have the upper hand against the military in remote jungle and mountainous terrain. In another incident, Philippine police shot and killed a man who took a fellow bus passenger hostage in central Manila Thursday, authorities said. Police closed down a normally clogged avenue and surrounded the bus where the unidentified assailant held up a fellow passenger with a knife. “The hostage was able to escape and that was when the police shot and wounded him (the assailant). No other people in the bus were hurt,” Manila police spokeswoman Chief Inspector Kim Gonzales told AFP. “He has already passed away. We don’t know who he is or why he did it.” Local press reports said the bus passengers fled when the driver stopped the vehicle after noticing the incident. “We congratulate our policemen for doing a good job,” Manila city mayor Joseph Estrada told reporters.

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