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Italian priest kidnapped in Philippines

Eight gunmen seized an Italian priest celebrating mass on Wednesday evening in a church in the southern Philippines, close to where Muslim guerrillas are holding a US missionary couple.

Fr Giuseppi Piarantoni was kidnapped in the coastal town of Dimataling in Zamboanga del Sur province while troops pursued Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who have been holding two US missionaries and eight Filipinos hostage for months on nearby Basilan island.

The military said it was unclear whether the eight men who abducted the priest belonged to the Abu Sayyaf or whether they were members of another group active in this violence-ridden area of the southern Philippines.

"The gunmen barged into the church at around 7 p.m. and took away the priest," southern military commander Lieutenant-General Roy Cimatu told reporters in Zamboanga.

The group, with their captive, fled in a speedboat and patrol boats are now searching for them among the numerous small islands around Zamboanga, Cimatu said.

Coastal towns in the Zamboanga peninsula have been the targets of raids in the past several years by various Muslim separatist factions and by kidnap for ransom gangs.