Priest's family wants Sayyaf head captured

- Ding Cervantes -

CASTILLEJOS, Zambales - The family of a Catholic priest who was killed by the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf last Wednesday wants the group's leader captured "dead or alive."

Fr. Rhoel Gallardo, 34, and three other hostages were shot dead by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas as Army Scout Rangers were closing in on the terrorist group's hideout in the mountains of Basilan last Wednesday.

The military operation was able to rescue 15 hostages. Army troops are still searching for the other captives.

Gallardo's father Domingo, 61, said he would ask the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct an autopsy on his son's body to determine the cause of death.

Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said Gallardo was hogtied and shot in the back of the head by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who were fleeing the military onslaught.

Mercado sent his condolences to the Gallardo family through an interview over radio station dzMM.

The three other dead hostages - all teachers - were also shot at close range in the head, according to a priest who saw their bodies.

Rev. Martin Jumoad said several of them, including two women, had apparently been hacked on their bodies and arms.

Gallardo said his family has forgiven his son's killers and they are praying for their "enlightenment," but that the killing of innocent people should immediately stop.

"But what we want is for the government to capture dead or alive the leader of the Abu Sayyaf," he said.

Gallardo said the government was "partly to blame" for the death of his son because it failed to successfully negotiate for the hostages' safe release.

He said the rescue operation was "focused on the Abu Sayyaf" and that the protection of the hostages had not been given importance.

Gallardo said Fr. Rhoel had often written about the Abu Sayyaf's demand for "support in the form of taxes," and that he had always sent these letters to his bishop.

"He had always been aware of the dissidents in the hills surrounding his parish," he said. "The government had also been aware of the existence of the dissidents there and did not act early enough before the situation worsened."

Fr. Rhoel had been parish priest of Barangay Tumababong in Sumisip town, Basilan and director of the Claret School in the province for two years before he was kidnapped.

Gallardo and his family gathered at their house in Barangay Del Pilar here after learning about Fr. Rhoel's death from news reports.

"It was his (Fr. Rhoel's) choice to be a missionary priest and we had long resigned to God his fate,' he said.

Gallardo asked the government to airlift Fr. Rhoel's remains to Subic International Airport for transport to their house in this town.

Hundreds of townsfolk from all over the province are expected to welcome the body of Fr. Rhoel upon its arrival on Monday.

Bishop Deogracias Iñiguez of Zambales called on provincial residents to pray for the successful rescue of the seven remaining hostages being held by the Abu Sayyaf.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) yesterday condemned the killing of Fr. Rhoel and the three other hostages.

Msgr. Hernando Coronel, CBCP director for media affairs, said the senseless act was perpetrated by terrorists whose nefarious activities have been denounced by peace-loving people, Muslims and Christians alike in Mindanao, and the rest of the country.

"It is an even greater tragedy that this despicable incident comes as a violently desperate move by the kidnappers in reaction to the armed assault on their camps by government troops who have been ordered to launch an all-out war against the rebel forces."

He said this turn of events was precisely what the bishops had warned could happen if militarization is pursued as the sole choice to solve the problem in Mindanao.

"Clearly militarization is not the answer," Coronel said. "Justice and peace can never come through violence. Now more than ever before, we urge all parties to return to the negotiating table to engage not in violent encounter but in dialogue, realizing that this is the only genuine path to peace."

Coronel said lives have already been lost in the senseless conflict that pits Filipinos against one another.

"In this moment of anguish, we pray that they have not been in vain-that these innocent people had given up their lives that we may learn the painful lesson that conflict is not resolved through violence."- With Bebot Sison Jr., Sandy Araneta, AP

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