Priest's release raises hopes for peace in Philippines

THE release of a kidnapped Catholic priest - reported to be the dying wish of the leader of the extreme Muslim group which seized him two months ago - fuelled hopes yesterday that a religious war can be averted in the most violent corner of the Philippines.

Father Cirilo Nacorda, 36, was handed over to government officials on the south-western island of Basilan by the radical Abu Sayyaf force. Negotiators said the group's commander had given the order to free the priest unharmed as he lay dying from gunshot wounds received in a government ambush. More than 2,000 troops were sent to the far south-west to hunt down the Muslim rebels after they abducted 74 people on a highway two months ago. They massacred 15 Christians among the group and freed 57 others while one escaped, leaving Fr Nacorda as their only captive.

The June killings were the worst in a spate of attacks on Christians by Abu Sayyaf, in which several foreign missionaries were killed. Its leader, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, whose Christian mother sent him to a Catholic high school, formed the group in the early 1990s on his return from the Middle East, where he is reported to have received military training in Libya and studied Arabic and Islamic law in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Christians were threatening to form vigilante groups to fight back against the movement, while moderate Muslims feared their efforts to win more autonomy would be jeopardised.

Last month the extremists kidnapped an American priest, Fr Clarence Bertelsman, while he was saying Mass on the island of Jolo, but he was freed in a gun battle later the same day by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which has declared a ceasefire in its 20-year insurgency while it negotiates with President Fidel Ramos' government.

The authorities in Manila, more than 500 miles to the north, have never found it easy to exercise control over the extreme south-west, one of the poorest and most lawless parts of the Philippines.

Bandits control much of the countryside, while the seas around the Sulu archipelago are plagued by pirates. The rest of the 65 million population is overwhelmingly Christian, mainly Catholic, but the south-west has a Muslim majority, thanks to the spread of Islam along the Indonesian archipelago.

After a separatist rebellion led by the MNLF took some 50,000 lives at its peak in the 1970s, the region's six million Muslims were given a measure of autonomy in the Sulu archipelago and parts of Mindanao. The deal being discussed with Manila would extend this to most of the western half of Mindanao, including its main urban centre, Zamboanga City. The local authorities would be allowed to apply Islamic law to an extent yet to be determined.

Abu Sayyaf, in contrast, demands that the whole of Mindanao and the Sulu islands should be turned into an Islamic theocracy. The government scoffs at this as little more than a cover for banditry, pointing out that Fr Nacorda's captors demanded a ransom for his release, but some observers believe the faction is gaining support from young Muslims disillusioned by corruption among their leaders. With the MNLF allowing government troops through its territory to take on the militants, however, the authorities believe they are close to crushing Abu Sayyaf and reducing Muslim-Christian tensions.

(Map omitted)