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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Indian priest says Yemeni captors did not harm him physically

Father Tom Uzhunnalil was kidnapped in March 2016 during an attack on a home for the aged in Aden that left 17 dead

Father Tom Uzhunnalil wipes away tears as he speaks during a press conference in Rome on September 16, 2017 about his recent release by Yemeni militants. Andrew Medichini / AP Photo
Father Tom Uzhunnalil wipes away tears as he speaks during a press conference in Rome on September 16, 2017 about his recent release by Yemeni militants. Andrew Medichini / AP Photo

A Catholic priest from India who was held for 18 months by militants in Yemen said on Saturday that he was never physically harmed during his captivity, even if his captors feigned hitting him in videos seeking ransom.

Father Tom Uzhunnalil was kidnapped in March 2016 from a home for the aged in the southern port city of Aden that was established by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. Four nuns were killed during the attack. Fr Uzhunnalil's voice broke as he expressed his condolences during his first public statements on his ordeal.

"I thank God almighty for this day. He saved me healthy enough. Clear mind. Emotions under control until now," the 59-year-old priest said. "God has been extremely kind to me. No gun was pointed at me."

Fr Uzhunnalil said he identified himself as an Indian when the home was attacked and was taken to another room "while they killed the others".

India and Oman announced his release on Tuesday. Images of Fr Uzhunnalil descending from an Omani air force plane in Muscat show him gaunt and bearded. The priest said he had been transferred from Yemen by car to Oman, and then brought by air to the Omani capital before continuing his journey to Rome.

The priest said he did not know his kidnappers' identities or affiliations and believed their motive was ransom, although the head of the Salesian order to which he belongs said they had no knowledge of any ransom having been paid.

"No one ever told us that they asked for money. No one asked us for even a euro," Don A F Artime, said. "We don't know anything about this. This is the whole truth. And I believe that Father Tom knows even less."

The mechanisms behind his release also were unclear, but the Vatican has thanked the Sultan of Oman in a statement and Fr Uzhunnalil thanked leaders in his native India.

The priest said that his captors never harmed him, even if in some videos they made it appear that way in an effort to get a speedy response in negotiations. They provided tablets to treat his diabetes and took care of his basic needs. He was transferred several times during his captivity, but he does not know where he was held. His captors kept their faces covered in his presence, he said.

Fr Artime said the priest lost about 30 kilograms during the ordeal, and described his health as "very delicate, very weak", adding "he is calm of spirit".

Fr Uzhunnalil, who comes from Ramapuram in the southern Indian state of Kerala, had worked at the home in Aden for four years. The city has often been targeted by extremist militants from Al Qaeda and ISIL since civil war broke out in Yemen in 2015, but there was no claim of responsibility for the attack on the home.

Seventeen people were killed when militants stormed the home in Aden's Sheikh Othman district on March 4, 2016. Residents told The National the dead included Six Ethiopians, a Yemeni cook and Yemeni guards. Two of the nuns who were killed were from Rwanda and the other two were from Kenya and India, the Missionaries of Charity said. One nun escaped by hiding in a cold room for storing medicines.

A doctor at the hospital that received the bodies said most of the victims were shot in the head and some had their hands tied behind their backs.

Fr Uzhunnalil said he was taken away in the boot of a car. He was last seen in a video circulated online in December 2016, in which he appealed to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Pope Francis to secure his freedom.

The priest had an audience with the pope last week after flying to Rome from Oman and has been in the Vatican City since then.