Kidnapped ex-Italian missionary freed in Philippines

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Abu Sayyaf militants freed a former Italian missionary on Friday after six months of captivity in a southern Philippine jungle, military officials said.

Philippine troops and police found Rolando del Torchio on a ferry boat at Jolo port in Sulu province and took him to a military clinic for examination because of his poor health, a military report said. It was not immediately clear how he got to the boat, which was bound for Zamboanga city, where he could have taken a ride back to his home in Dipolog city.

In Rome, the Italian foreign ministry thanked the Philippine government for its "excellent cooperation and commitment, which allowed the release" of del Torchio, but did not elaborate.

Del Torchio has lived in the southern Philippines despite a history of violent attacks on other Italian priests.

He left his Roman Catholic mission several years ago and started a pizza restaurant in Dipolog city. He was seized last October from the restaurant by about six gunmen, some of whom pretended to be customers, and taken away by van and then motor boat, police said.

He was eventually taken to Jolo island, where Abu Sayyaf militants have held several kidnapping victims in their jungle camps.

A ransom may have been paid for del Torchio's release, a military official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the details of the kidnapping to the media. Other military officials said they were not aware of any ransom payment.

Long-running security problems have hounded the southern Philippines, which has bountiful resources but is hamstrung by poverty and an array of insurgents and outlaws.

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 improve their skills and set up cooperatives in poor communities, according to former fellow missionaries.

The Abu Sayyaf has been listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the Philippines for its involvement in deadly bombings, extortion, kidnappings for ransom and beheadings. It has been weakened by years of U.S.-backed military offensives but remains a key security concern. Several kidnap victims, including two Canadians and a Norwegian who were seized from a marina in the south along with a Filipino woman, are believed to still be in the custody of the militants.

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Associated Press writer Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.

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