Philippine police seek witnesses in priest killing

AP News
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Posted: Oct 18, 2011 4:38 AM
Philippine police seek witnesses in priest killing

The Philippines has created a special police unit to investigate the killing of an Italian missionary priest in the country's south, while the president vowed Tuesday that those responsible would be brought to justice.

The Special Investigation Task Group will ask permission from Roman Catholic officials to conduct an autopsy on Rev. Fausto Tentorio's remains in hopes of recovering bullet fragments to identify the firearm used and its owner, according to Chief Superintendent Lester Camba.

A man shot Tentorio early Monday within the church compound in North Cotabato province's Arakan township and fled on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice.

The 59-year-old priest, a native of Santa Maria Hoe town in Italy's Lecco province, had been in the Philippines for the past 32 years. He was the third missionary from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Mission, or PIME, killed in the Philippines.

"The motive is still being determined," Camba told The Associated Press. "We are appealing to the constituents of Arakan ... to come out and give information on what happened, even before the incident."

President Benigno Aquino III said police were following leads, which he did not specify.

"At this point in time we are not prepared to name the suspects involved in this," he said.

He vowed that those responsible would go to jail.

"Regardless of who did the crime, they will have to pay," Aquino said.

Camba said no one has come forward claiming to have seen the actual shooting, which happened while a regular morning flag raising ceremony was being held in a school across the street from the church compound.

He said a person saw a man running away from the scene after the shooting, but the witness was about 200 yards (meters) away.

He said bullet slugs are still embedded in Tentorio's body. Tentorio was shot from the left side from about three feet (1 meter) away, he said.

Rev. Gianni Re, who heads PIME in the Philippines, told AP the autopsy can be performed "as long as it will help the investigation."

Re said plans for next week's funeral are being prepared as church authorities wait for the arrival of the family of Tentorio, who will most likely be buried in the Philippines as was his wish.

He said there were 22 PIME missionaries in the Philippines and Tentorio was one of 10 assigned on Mindanao, the resource-rich but largely poor main southern Philippine island where communist and Muslim rebels and al-Qaida-linked militants operate.

"We don't understand why now? What happened? Who is behind it? So we don't understand the reason, and that is the reason we are shocked," he said. "We don't understand why there are people who do this kind of thing even though we are here to try to help, to help the church, to help the people."

He said Tentorio, just like many other missionary and local priests in remote areas in Mindanao, had been suspected of being a supporter of communist rebels. He did not elaborate.

Tentorio had been a longtime parish priest in Arakan, spoke the dialect fluently and had good ties with the people there, said town police chief Benjamin Rioflorido.

The left-wing group, Bayan, protested the killing Tuesday outside the Department of Justice in Manila, and demanded an immediate investigation.

The group's head, Carol Araullo, said Tentorio may have been assassinated for being a "staunch advocate" of the rights of peasants and indigenous peoples.

Italian Ambassador Luca Fornari condemned the killing and expressed shock, sadness and dismay.

"Killing someone who is doing good things is something that we cannot understand," he added.

He said the embassy has asked police to increase security for missionaries.