PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — A HAGGARD Italian priest held hostage for over a month in Mindanao said yesterday he lost 15 pounds on a meager diet of fish and rice but was not threatened by his Muslim captors.
The Rev. Giancarlo Bossi, 57, said he did not believe he would be freed until he was dumped Thursday night along a road where police picked him up.
Bossi was kidnapped June 10 on his way to celebrate Mass in southern Zamboanga Sibugay province.
Minutes after he was released, Bossi called his 87-year-old mother, Amalia.
“Happy birthday, mom. I am free now,” he told her. His brother Marcello said Bossi’s release was “the best present” for their mother’s birthday, which the family celebrated in Rome.
Police said Bossi was freed after negotiations with the captors—rogue elements of a Muslim separatist group or the Abu Sayyaf—and that no ransom was paid.
“From the beginning, they told me they were Abu Sayyaf,” Bossi told a news conference in southern Zamboanga City before he was to fly to Manila on his way to Italy.
Bossi said his captors told him they kidnapped him because he was a priest and could fetch a ransom.
But Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, appearing with Bossi at the news conference, denied any ransom was paid.
“There were some demands for ransom,” he said. “We discussed this matter with the Italian ambassador and the agreement we all arrived at was there would be zero ransom given.
“We would pay nothing to these kidnappers for the safety of Father Bossi. From that time on, it was touch and go,” Puno said.
At one point, Bossi broke down in tears as he described his six weeks of captivity.
He said he was repeatedly forced to march through the jungle at gunpoint as his captors tried to evade the authorities.
“We rejoice over the safe release of Father Bossi,” President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said after talking with the priest at the Heroes Hall in Malacañang. “We thank our soldiers, police and concerned civilians who worked for his freedom.
“Father Bossi is in good hands. We pray he could soon gather his strength and recover from his ordeal,” she said.
Bossi said the President had told him that 14 Marines had been killed while searching for him on Basilan island.
“She told me that many people had been working hard for my freedom,” he said.
Bossi said he would visit the families of the dead Marines and vowed to resume his parish work in the southern town of Payao.
“My plan from the beginning was to go back to Payao and tell the people I’m still alive,” he said, wiping away tears as his voice broke. “My heart is still in Payao.”
In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI welcomed the news with “great joy,” a Vatican spokesman said.
In earlier media interviews, Bossi said he had braced himself for months of captivity because two other Italian priests were kidnapped and held for that long several years ago. But he said his captors treated him “with respect.”
“I never had the sensation that they wanted to kill me, nor did I ever receive a death threat or violence of any kind,” Bossi told the MISNA missionary news agency. “The food wasn’t great: rice, salt and dried fish. As a result, I lost some weight. But I also stopped smoking; I haven’t touched a cigarette since June 27.”
Bossi was freed in Karumatan town along the boundaries of southern Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur provinces, said Chief Supt. Jaime Caringal, a regional police commander. He was barefoot and wearing a black jacket and loose brown trousers that did little to ward off the chill, Caringal said.
He said Bossi’s release came after negotiations involving a former local mayor and the kidnappers, whom Caringal identified as rogue members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim separatist group in the southern Philippines that has been involved in peace talks with the government.
“My kidnappers [took] me to the road. We walked last night about two hours,” Bossi told reporters. “I just told them I memorized their faces and if I see the police I will tell them that is one of my kidnappers.”
Puno said the military and police have launched operations to hunt down the kidnappers who fled to different locations.
“We are still running after them. This was an unusual event and it required unusual tactics on the part of the Philippine National Police,” he said.
Puno also dismissed talk that Bossi’s release was timed for the President’s State-of-the- Nation Address, saying this was an insult to the memory of the Marines who died looking for him.
In a briefing yesterday, the Armed Forces said it would be sending more soldiers into Lanao del Norte to hunt down Bossi’s abductors.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu denied the group was responsible, and rebel vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar promised they would coordinate with the government in investigating whether two possible suspects had ties with the guerrillas.
Troops have been searching for Bossi across the south.
On July 10, a Marine convoy checking a reported sighting of the priest was ambushed by Muslim insurgents in dense jungle on Basilan, and 14 troops were killed, 10 of them beheaded. The military blamed the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF.
Military officials in Lanao told journalists that three former commanders of the MILF—Abdul Salam, Putot Jakaria and Ogis Jakaria—were responsible for abducting Bossi.
An MILF spokesman hit the military for making “provocative” claims.
“There is no renegade MILF,” said Khaled Musa. “If it is renegade, it is not MILF. There is only one MILF.”
A Palace official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the abductors were MILF members, but the President’s hands were tied because she did not want to jeopardize peace talks with the separatist group.
Following Bossi’s release, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines called on the government to safeguard foreign missionaries in remote areas of the country against kidnappers.
“Foreign missionaries are giving a great service to the people in far-flung corners of the country, especially in Mindanao, at great sacrifice and even danger. We hope that what had happened to Father Bossi will not happen again,” said the group’s president, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo.
Senators Rodolfo Biazon and Francis Pangilinan yesterday said Bossi’s release should not stop the government from punishing those who killed the 14 Marines.