Gunmen seize Italian restaurant owner in Philippines

Philippine coast guard personnel patrol the waters on a speed boat near Davao City and Samal island, off the southern island of Mindanao on Sept 25, 2015.
Philippine coast guard personnel patrol the waters on a speed boat near Davao City and Samal island, off the southern island of Mindanao on Sept 25, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Gunmen have seized an Italian restaurant owner and former priest in the southern Philippines, authorities said Thursday (Oct 8), expressing fears he was taken to the island lair of the extremist Abu Sayyaf group.

Six suspects, four posing as customers, kidnapped Rolando del Torchio in a swift raid that shocked the dinnertime crowd at his pizzeria in the sleepy port city of Dipolog on Wednesday, a regional military spokesman said.

The group bundled the 56-year-old into a waiting van then sped off to Manukan town some 50km away, where they transferred to a motorboat, Captain Roy Vincent Trinidad told AFP.

Navy ships have been alerted to intercept the bandits after intelligence indicated the boat had navigated along the Zamboanga peninsula coastline towards the southwestern island of Jolo, some 400km away, he added.

Jolo is the main base of Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, which has been blamed for the Philippine's deadliest terror attacks, beheadings and kidnappings of foreign tourists and Christian missionaries.

"All kidnappings in the peninsula end up in Jolo. That's the pattern," Trinidad said. "Hostages taken in the area are eventually turned over to the Abu Sayyaf."

The rag-tag Abu Sayyaf has engaged in frequent kidnappings of locals as well foreigners in often successful efforts to extort ransoms.

A Filipino village chief who was seized from the same southwestern peninsula in May was found beheaded on a Jolo highway three months later after the government refused to pay.

Two other coastguard men who were abducted with the village official were also brought to Jolo but eventually escaped amid a hail of gunfire as the military pounded the bandits' lair.

Wednesday's incident was the second abduction involving foreigners in the south in less than a month, after the military said Abu Sayyaf is holding foreigners hostage in the Jolo jungles: a Dutch man, a Korean and two Malaysians.

Local press have also reported four foreigners abducted from a luxury island resort in the south Philippines last month - two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina - are being held on the island, although authorities have not confirmed this.

The Italian embassy in Manila did not immediately return a request for comment.