Military, police pursue killers of Oblate priest in the Philippines

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Zamboanga City: January 17, 2008. (AsiaNews) - Combined military and police forces are pursuing the gunmen who allegedly killed a priest who resisted them and seized a teacher on Tuesday night, January 15, in a remote island of Tawi-Tawi province, southern Philippines. The gunmen are believed to be members of the terrorist, al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Larin, chief of the Marine Battalion Landing Team-2 (MBLT-2), deployed troops to track down the fleeing bandits who are dragging along with them Notre Dame High School teacher Omar Taup, a Muslim. Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) priest Fr Jesus Reynaldo Roda, the director of Notre Dame High School in Tabawan island, South Ubian, Tawi-Tawi, was killed by the gunmen at around 8:30 p.m. (local time) while Taup was hogtied and brought along by the gunmen. The gunmen, numbering around 10 people, barged into the Notre Dame compound with the intent of kidnapping Fr. Roda, who resisted. This prompted the gunmen to shoot the priest. Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief Lieutenant General Nelson Allaga has ordered Larin to coordinate with Tawi-Tawi policemen who have also launched pursuit operations for the arrest of the bandits and rescue of the Notre Dame high school teacher. "This only shows that this armed group does not respect any religion and continues to bring chaos in this part of the country." Allaga said. Allaga condemned the killing of Fr. Roda. Personnel from the Naval Task Force 62, which has operational jurisdiction over the 107 islands and islets of Tawi-Tawi, are helping ground troops by scouring the seawaters around the province in pursuit of the gunmen. Major Eugenio Batara Jr., information officer of Westmincom, disclosed that there had been previous kidnapping attempts on prominent personalities by the Abu Sayyaf bandits, but such moves were successfully foiled by military and police operatives. The remains of Fr. Roda was transported by a Philippine Navy boat to the town of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi`s capital, from Tabawan Island, which is three to four hours away from the province`s capital. Fr Roberto Layson, head of the OMI's Inter-Religious Dialogue, said the Holy Rosary Church "is full of people, Muslims and Christians. Even the Muslims brought food, according to the parish priest". Fr Jonathan Domingo, chief executive officer of Mindanao Cross and executive director of the Oblate Missionary Foundation, said Fr Roda's remains will be brought to Cotabato City "by Saturday or Sunday". Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo said the burial is set for Jan 23 at the Oblates' Cemetery in Tamontaka, on the outskirts of Cotabato City, after the 8 a.m. mass. Fr. Roda, who was an anti-terrorism advocate, had been receiving kidnapping threats since last year from an unidentified group. He was the third Roman Catholic missionary killed under the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo that covers the provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. The first was Bishop Benjamin De Jesus, who was killed by still unidentified gunmen in 1997 in the town of Jolo, the capital of Sulu province. Another Roman Catholic missionary, Fr. Benjie Inocencio, was also killed three years after Bishop De Jesus`s killing, also in Sulu, where troops are continuously pursuing the remaining leaders and members of the Abu Sayyaf group Fr Roda's killing drew condemnation from various groups. The president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, said that whole church was "deeply saddened" by what happened and "condemn the violence and pray for a just solution". Sheikh Mohammad Muntassir, head of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front Da'wah (Call to Islam) Committee, said saying they "condemn this killing in the highest possible terms and the killers deserve hell for this barbaric act". Muntassir said the lives of non-combatants, including priests, are held inviolable in Islam even in combat situation. He said the killing of Fr Roda "is an indication of the worsening situation in the Philippines that spares no one from the scourge of violence". Milet Mendoza of Tabang Mindanaw, wrote the Pagtabangan sa BaSulTa (Basilan Sulu Tawi-tawi) e-group that Fr Roda "had big dreams and hope for the people". Tabawan, like the rest of the areas in Tawi-tawi province, is predominantly Muslim. The priest, also head of missions for the OMI in Tabawan, pursued programmes for education and health. "He had in fact held a meeting with his convenors last Friday to plan out the activities and preparations", Mendoza wrote. "We had been working together since 2003 during the height of the deportation of Filipinos from Sabah - building core shelters, day care, creating feeding programmes for children and recently, rehabilitating classrooms. In our forthcoming undertaking, we were to expand to four more communities. He had assembled his Notre Dame of Tabawan teachers to become core convenors for peace and development work. Governance was a problem he was always grieving about", Mendoza said. Mendoza added that Fr Roda "did not want to leave Tabawan yet because he still had more projects in the pipeline. He knew that when it was time to leave, the new leaders would have taken root". Andri Atmaka, OMI provincial in Indonesia, who met Fr Roda when the latter visited them in 1993, said he still remembers his discussion with him "on the meaning of our vocation as Oblates. Now, he makes his whole life truly an oblation to God" . Veronica Villavicencio, executive director of Peace and Equity Foundation, wrote the OMI that while they "lost a brother and faithful missionary, Pagtabangan BaSulTa has also lost a bridging leader and advocate for the poor of Tawi-Tawi". "We deplore the brutal killing of one who has done only good for the people of Tabawan. There is no plausible nor remotely acceptable explanation for this atrocity", she said.

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