Priest says army conspired with Abu Sayyaf


MANILA, AFP

Philippine Roman Catholic bishops on Monday asked the government to protect a priest who accused army officers of conspiring with Muslim Abu Sayyaf kidnappers.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) also called for a “full investigation” into charges by Father Cirilo Nacorda that military officers took bribes to allow Abu Sayyaf gunmen to escape a massive military assault on the southern island of Basilan in June.

“In the meantime, the CBCP is appealing to the concerned government agencies to extend to Father Nacorda the necessary support and protection,” it said in a statement.

Only a “fair, impartial and immediate investigation” could restore the full confidence of Basilan residents into the military leadership, which has denied the accusation as hearsay.

Nacorda claimed he has strong evidence to support his claim that an army general, a colonel and several other officers allowed the Abu Sayyaf gunmen to escape from a hospital and church compound in Lamitan town where they were cornered by hundreds of soldiers on June 2.

Nacorda escaped at the height of the assault, but his bodyguard was killed. The priest claimed the officers received a share of ranson money from the Abu Sayyaf, allowing the rebels to flee and continue their criminal activities.

The Abu Sayyaf in May snatched three Americans and 17 Filipinos from a beach resort off the western island of Palawan. It later freed most of the Filipino captives in what it said was an exchange for ransom payment.

However, the group then seized more Filipino hostages in Basilan, 10 of whom they beheaded last week.

One of the Americans, Californian Guillermo Sobero was believed to have been executed, although his remains have not been found.

On Friday, three Filipino hostages escaped during a clash between their captors and soldiers, leaving the rebels with only 18 hostages, including American couple Martin and Gracia Burnham.

President Gloria Arroyo has also called for an investigation into Nacorda’s accusations, which the military top brass said has dampened the morale of its troops.

The armed forces has vowed to crush the rebels and free all captives by November, and have said they may send additional troops and train more militia to back up the 5,000 soldiers already scouring Basilan’s jungles.

The CBCP enjoys considerable clout in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.