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Italian Priest Free from Kidnappers - 2002-04-08

A kidnapped Italian priest held in the Southern Philippines since October has been freed, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced Monday.

Father Giuseppe Pierantoni, looking thin but happy, called his release a "miracle of prayer" during a meeting with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo Monday afternoon. He said he lived off snake meat and lizards during his six-month captivity in the forest.

Father Pierantoni was kidnapped last October from his church in Dimataling town, Zamboanga del Sur province on Mindanao Island by a band of bandits called the Pentagon group. The group, whose alleged head was arrested last February, is believed to be made up of former Muslim separatist rebels.

Philippine Interior Secretary Joey Lina said Father Pierantoni was rescued close to Tungawan, around 80 kilometers northeast of Zamboanga City, at around two a.m. Monday morning by a special police operations group. Mr. Lina said members of the Pentagon gang fled before police could engage them in a firefight, leaving the Italian priest behind.

Mr. Lina said no ransom was paid to Father Pierantoni's kidnappers. Father Pierantoni was given a clean bill of health by doctors before being flown to Manila to meet with President Arroyo.

Mrs. Arroyo called the rescue of the Italian priest a "big step towards peace". She urged the military and police to intensify their operations against kidnapping gangs, saying her marching orders were to "Give them no quarter. Annihilate them."

She said she hoped an American missionary couple, who were kidnapped last May by the Abu Sayyaf, a radical Muslim group the United States has linked to Osama bin Laden, would be free soon.

The Abu Sayyaf still holds Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kansas and Philippine nurse Ediborah Yap, the last of a group of hostages it seized 10 months ago. Over the last two years, the group extorted millions of dollars in ransom money for the release of foreigners they kidnapped.

The Abu Sayaff has beheaded a number of hostages, including American Guillermo Sobero. More than 600 U.S. troops have been in the Philippines since January conducting a joint Philippine-U.S. counter terrorism exercise aimed at exterminating the Abu Sayyaf.