Heroic Bishop Offers Self in Exchange for Hostages

Gunmen in the Philippines released 13 hostages yesterday, including a Catholic bishop, after having kidnapped them the day before in the southern region of the country.

Bishop Emmanuel Treveno Cabajar of Pagadian, in the southern region of Zamboango del Sur, was among the 13 hostages released unharmed. He had been serving as mediator between police and the kidnappers in negotiations to win the release of the hostages.

A Communist guerilla group, the New People's Army, denied that the gunmen were connected to them, although police had identified them as NPA members. The bishop later said he received the impression the men were gun smugglers who were caught in a police checkpoint.

The three gunmen hijacked a bus on Tuesday as it approached a police checkpoint in Misamis Occidental province. Police later agreed to let the gunmen escape if they agreed to free the passengers.

As part of the agreement, the gunmen demanded they be given a pick-up truck and that Bishop Cabajar join them as a human shield, in return pledging to release all of the hostages once they reached safety, police and officials said. Cabajar agreed, even though top police officials had advised against the move.

The gunmen departed in the pick-up truck with Bishop Cabajar inside and the hostages piled in back, and later released all the captives, officials said.

The gunmen abandoned the bishop in the remote town of Lakewood, south of Pagadian, where the bishop offered a Mass of thanksgiving.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo praised Bishop Cabajar's "uncommon courage and forbearance" for his role in gaining the freedom of the hostages. Director General Arturo Lomibao of the Philippine National Police also praised the bishop. "We are thankful to him for risking his life just to ensure the safety of the hostages," he said.