Rebels deny charges in Philippines

ZAMBOANGA: The Philippines' biggest Muslim rebel group denied Thursday that one of its commanders was holding a kidnapped Irish priest, while insisting it wanted to help rescue him.

The military said a notorious pirate had kidnapped Father Michael Sinnott, 79, from his home in the southern Philippines on Sunday and may have passed him on to a local commander for the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

It also said Wednesday that Sinnott was being held in a remote area that is known to be an MILF stronghold.

"We do not deny the fact that there is a presence of the MILF in the area and an MILF community there but it is not true that the MILF is holding the priest," the group's spokesman, Eid Kabalu, said in response on Thursday.

Kabalu also said the MILF was sending an emissary to Sultan Naga Dimaporo town, where the military said Sinnott was being held, to check if the priest was really there and try to secure his release.

"We are ready to intervene and operate for the possible recovery of the priest. We have already mobilised our men on the ground to do whatever action is necessary," he said.

Six armed gunmen kidnapped Sinnott on Sunday night from his home at the Missionary Society of Saint Columban compound in Pagadian City on southern Mindanao island.

There are fears Sinnott may be used to extract a ransom, either by the pirate or whomever he passes the priest on to.

Aside from the MILF, the Muslim militant Abu Sayyaff group and armed gangs such as the one run by the pirate, Guingona Samal, operate in the area.

The government and the MILF have had a ceasefire in place since 2005 and the two sides are due to resume peace talks soon.

The MILF, which has been fighting for an independent Muslim homeland in the south of this Roman Catholic country since 1978, has said it had no interest in abducting Sinnott because that would jeopardise peace talks.

There is concern over Sinnott's health as he had quadruple heart bypass surgery in 2005 and needs constant medication.

Sinnott has spent about 40 years in the Philippines, first arriving in Mindanao in 1957 as a missionary. After a stint elsewhere, he came back to the Philippines in 1976 and never left.