The military flew 500 marines to Cotabato in the southern Philippines on Wednesday to beef up security and stop a rash of kidnappings in the tense city where a French priest is being held for ransom.

"Your first objective, gentlemen, is to stop these . . . kidnappings," Armed Forces Chief Lieut.-Gen. Rodolfo Biazon told the marines who arrived from Manila to boost forces in Cotabato city, 550 miles south of the capital.Biazon and Executive Secretary Oscar Orbos met local bishop Philip Smith to discuss the case of French priest Yves Caroff, who is held for ransom by kidnappers.

"We begged the military not to pursue the kidnappers, to give us a chance to keep talking with them. We want to get him (Caroff) alive," Smith said in a telephone interview.

Caroff, 66, was returning to his mountainside parish in Kaus after visiting Cotabato city last Wednesday when six armed men stopped his car.

His abductors have asked for a $355,000 ransom and threatened to kill him if the military launches a rescue operation. Church leaders have said they will not pay.

Gunmen apparently belonging to the same group abducted a businessman on Saturday in Cotabato, the 20th kidnap victim in the area so far this year.