PAGADIAN, Philippines – The kidnappers of an elderly Irish Catholic priest in the Philippines have released a video of their captive in which he says two million dollars must be paid for his release.
The video, a copy of which was seen by a local journalist in Pagadian city on Saturday, showed 79-year-old Father Michael Sinnott holding a copy of the October 22 issue of a Manila newspaper.
"My kidnappers are led by commander Abu Jayad. They are asking two million US dollars as ransom money," the priest said while standing in front of what appeared to be a bed sheet or table cloth in a forested area.
"We are living in the open, in difficult circumstances. I am still in good health even if I do not have the full medicines."
It was the first time any proof had been made public that Sinnott, who needs medication for a heart condition, was alive since gunmen seized him from his mission office in Pagadian on Mindanao island on October 11.
Father Patrick O'Donoghue, the Philippine head of the Missionary Society of Saint Columban, who saw photographs taken from the video, confirmed that it was Sinnott and expressed relief that he was looking relatively healthy.
However, he stressed that no money would be paid to secure Sinnott's freedom.
"The Columban fathers do not pay ransom and we never have and I don't think we ever would," O'Donoghue said.
He said Sinnott would not want a ransom to be paid.
"I could see him wanting that money to be used in ways rather than ransom. That two million should rather be used for education, for the care of people with disabilities," he said.
O'Donoghue said he had no previous knowledge of the video and that he immediately relayed the news to a government commission that is in charge of recovering Sinnott.
The pictures from the video showed an unshaven Sinnott smiling slightly, while someone else's hand from outside the frame helped in holding up the newspaper.
In Manila, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner confirmed that the military had obtained a copy of the video.
"Our intelligence (agents) on the ground have a copy," he told reporters.
However he said the military still could not verify who had really captured the priest.
There have been conflicting reports about who is holding Sinnott, with the military initially saying he was kidnapped by a Muslim pirate active in the area.
Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro has also said he believes Sinnott is being held by rogue elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a separatist Muslim rebel group engaged in peace talks with the government.
The MILF has repeatedly denied any involvement. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu told AFP on Saturday he did not know of any Abu Jayad, and had not been aware of the video before it was released to the media.
"We don't know anything about a video that came out as proof of life," said MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu.
However he said the MILF leadership was aware of Sinnott's general location and the likely identity of his kidnappers. But he said he would not reveal the details while the MILF pursued its own efforts to recover Sinnott.
The Irish government released a statement on Saturday saying: "The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Micheal Martin... spoke to the Sinnott family early this morning and they were very relieved to hear that there is further evidence that Father Sinnott is alive.
"Minister Martin also spoke to our Ambassador Richard O'Brien who has over the past three weeks been working closely with the government of the Philippines on behalf of the Irish government and has had meetings with representatives of the MILF and other agencies working in the area.
"Minister Martin said that no effort will be spared to secure the safe release of Fr Sinnott as soon as possible."
The area of the southern Philippines where Sinnott is believed to be held is a known stronghold of the MILF, while armed gangs and the Muslim Abu Sayyaf militant group are also known to operate in the often lawless region.
The Abu Sayyaf and other gangs have kidnapped priests and other foreigners in the region previously, then demanded ransoms for their release.
Sinnott has spent about 40 years in the Philippines, and is well-known in Pagadian for helping disabled children and other charity work.