Security forces in the Philippines have mounted land and at sea searches for a former Italian Catholic missionary a day after he was abducted by armed men in the country's south.
At least six men, some armed with rifles, dragged Rolando del Torchio from his pizza restaurant into a van and then to two motor boats and fled under cover of darkness on Wednesday from Dipolog in Zamboanga del Norte province, Ranie Hachuela, the city police chief superintendent, said.
Del Torchio had lived for years in the area despite a history of attacks against fellow Italian priests, officials said.
His abduction came after two Canadian tourists, a Norwegian and a Filipino woman were kidnapped last month from an upscale marina on Samal Island in Davao del Norte province, also in the south.
There has been no trace of the four.
The abductions have been the latest reminder of the long-running security problems that have blighted the region, which has plenty of resources and promises but is hamstrung by poverty and an array of insurgents and outlaws.
|Security forces have been engaged in a long-running campaign against the Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines [EPA]
Hachuela said security cameras caught images of some of the kidnappers and that may help authorities identify them.
Air force helicopters, navy patrol boats and army and police forces were deployed on Thursday to search coastal areas and suspected hideouts, including in southern Sulu province, where al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf fighters have held hostages for ransom in jungle camps.
But police said they do not know who is behind the latest kidnappings.
Del Torchio was an agriculturist who became a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, a Catholic group founded in Italy which has about 500 members in 17 countries.
He helped farmers hone their skills and set up cooperatives in poor communities, according to a colleague, Father Gianni Re.
"He's a very approachable person," Re said by phone, adding that del Torchio left the Catholic mission several years ago but stayed on in the region even though three Catholic missionaries from the institute have been kidnapped and two others killed in the past three decades.
Re, who heads the institute in the Philippines, said 10 other Italian missionaries are still working in the southern Philippines.