1998-11-17 00:00:00

After 68 days in the southern Philippine mountains, kidnapped Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) Father Luciano Benedetti was set free Nov. 16 in "good health and good spirits."

"I´m okay. I´m all right," the bearded Italian missioner, 20 pounds lighter, told reporters after he emerged from a helicopter at Awang Airport, Maguindanao, 885 kilometers southeast of Manila.

Father Benedetti was brought to Awang from Zamboanga City, west of Maguindanao, by Maguindanao Governor Zacaria Candao, presidential assistant Roberto Aventajado and Saed Aban, emissary of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

He proceeded to Manila with PIME Regional Superior Father Giulio Mariani, stopping briefly in nearby Sultan Kudarat to thank MILF spokesman Ghazali Jaafar, who the superior credited with negotiating his confrere´s release.

In Manila, Father Mariani told UCA News Father Benedetti harbored no bitterness toward his kidnappers and was instead impressed by the poverty his abductors suffered.

"Some people cry after these things, but (Father Benedetti) did not show any such emotion. You can tell he is in good spirits, and he still has his sense of humor," Father Mariani said after meeting with Father Benedetti.

"He said he was ´hoping´ something would go wrong with his health so that he would have an excuse to be released sooner, but nothing went wrong," Father Mariani added as he and Father Benedetti settled into the PIME house in Paranaque, south of Manila.

Father Benedetti, 54, was recovering from a liver infection when he was taken by armed men Sept. 8 from a PIME-run cooperative in Zamboanga del Sur, where he was spending the night on his way to say Mass at a mountain village.

His abductors, who the priest said called themselves the "Lost Command," asked US$330,000 in ransom and a 300,000 peso (US$7,400) "board and lodging fee." Father Benedetti reported that he was treated well.

"When they had food he had food, and when they didn´t have it he didn´t have any, either. That was hard for him, but there was no physical or psychological torture and he probably suffered more from boredom," Father Mariani said.

"(Father Benedetti) said he would walk around and talk to the little animals he saw here and there to try to keep busy," he reported, adding that Father Benedetti also spent his time praying.

"He tried to sleep as much as he could, but the first three weeks he said were the most tiring because they walked him long distances," Father Mariani said, noting that the first day in captivity was spent walking up to 10 hours on the mountain range. All in all he was turned over to at least 20 groups.

At 10 p.m. Nov. 15 Father Benedetti was told to get his things ready. "They told him to just take the things he needed and leave the rest, so he began to understand that they were taking him someplace to be released," Father Mariani said.

"No ransom was paid, but I have been spending money for cigarettes for people who had been carrying packages from me to Father Benedetti," he revealed.

Father Mariani said Father Benedetti had been in contact with his mother in Treviso, Italy. He said the freed priest would remain in Manila a few days to rest and to thank people, including President Joseph Estrada, before flying to Italy.

Father Benedetti´s release, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of his arrival in the Philippines, was celebrated at the Paranaque PIME house with pasta, Chianti wine and cappuccino ice cream.


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