1993-05-07 00:00:00

Claretian Father Bernardo Blanco, guided by a full moon and, he says, the Lord, escaped in the predawn hours of May 6 from kidnappers after 50 days in captivity.

Father Blanco said he hasn´t seen five-year old Anthony Biel, who was kidnapped in February and is believed being held by the priest´s original abductors. They are demanding 10 million pesos (US$4 million) as ransom for the boy.

The Spanish missioner was abducted March 18 while driving in his jeep to his parish church in Matarling Village, Isabela, 875 kilometers south of Manila in the island province of Basilan.

Father Blanco appeared before the press early in the afternoon of his escape at a house in Zamboanga City, at the western tip of Mindanao, belonging to the military´s Southern Command. He had been brought there by Gen. Guillermo Ruiz, the Basilan island commander who headed rescue operations, aboard a navy boat.

Father Blanco, who attributed his escape to "the help of the Lord," said he was being kept in a foxhole. Coming out to attend to a personal need, the Claretian priest said he found his abductors asleep. With a full moon to guide him, he decided to walk into the forest until he reached a militia outpost.

The priest said he "ran and ran" through the forest, covering about 20 kilometers before meeting paramilitary troops in the village of Maligi.

That was about 4 a.m. The militiamen, whose leader was identified only as Commander Samson, then contacted Isabela Mayor Leonardo Pioquinto, who personally picked up Father Blanco.

After arriving at the residence of Bishop Romulo de la Cruz of Basilan at about 6 a.m., the escaped missioner was brought to Isabela´s Infante Hospital for treatment of the bruises he sustained while escaping.

"I still feel very healthy," said Father Blanco, 62, who added that he subsisted mainly on a diet of "pangge," a local dish made of cassava and fish.

Father Alberto Rossa, spokesperson of the Claretian congregation in Manila, said Father Blanco´s escape is "the miracle of the day."

"It was incredible," said another Claretian priest in Basilan, who told Father Rossa that the area through which Father Blanco fled was mined.

The escape came four days after military authorities launched a major rescue operation to free the missioner and Biel.

The Spanish priest was abducted and initially held by a breakaway, or "lost command," group of the Moro National Liberation Front. He was later turned over to the Abu Sayyaf group, a band of militant Muslim fundamentalists.

Father Blanco said that when the military operations started May 3, his 30 heavily-armed kidnappers broke up into three to five groups. The group holding him was stationed at the top of a mountain.

The Claretian priest was the fourth foreign Catholic Religious abducted in the Muslim-dominated western Mindanao island over the past five months. The others, an American Franciscan missionary and two Spanish Carmelite nuns, were released unharmed and without any payment of ransom.

Claretian Father Domingo Moraleda, the congregation´s Philippine superior, said his order will not pull out its missionaries, whether foreign or Filipino, from critical areas in Mindanao.

"We shall continue to serve the Christian communities and share with them the fears and anxieties in these difficult moments," Father Moraleda said. Father Angel Calvo, another Spanish Claretian, is also assigned to Basilan.

Father Blanco, who has lived in the Philippines for 17 years, is expected to return to his birthplace in Zamora, Spain, after a brief stay in Manila, where he arrived the evening of May 6.


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