Supporters of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram, hold a torchlight parade near a mosque in Manila yesterday. Malaysia expanded its hunt for armed Filipino invaders who dodged a military assault meant to crush them, as a Philippine guerrilla said more fighters had arrived. INSET: Malaysia’s Defence Minister Zahid Hamidi shows a picture of a dead member of an armed Filipino group during a news conference at Felda Sahabat in Malaysia’s state of Sabah on Borneo island yesterday.
Agencies/Felda Sahabat, Malaysia
Malaysian security forces found 13 bodies of suspected Philippine militants as they expanded their hunt for an elusive armed group on the island of Borneo yesterday, a day after an assault with fighter jets, mortars and hundreds of troops.
The nearly month-long confrontation in Sabah state, in Malaysia’s part of Borneo, was sparked when the armed group of about 200 sailed from the nearby southern Philippines to press an ancient claim to the resource-rich region.
“The total is 13. There could be more,” Malaysian Defence Minister Zahid Hamidi told reporters at a media centre set up at the palm oil plantation of Felda Sahabat. It was unclear if the bodies found yesterday had been killed in Tuesday’s massive assault or included some of the 19 militants that Malaysian officials said had been killed over the weekend. At least 27 people, including eight Malaysian policemen, have been killed since Friday’s first clash.
Zahid, who produced what he described as pictures of some of the dead militants, said Malaysian forces had suffered no fresh casualties since the assault was launched on Tuesday.
Malaysian police warned residents to be on alert for members of the group who had escaped into plantations that dominate the coastal area and who could be posing as farmers.
Security forces clashed with suspected militants in three separate locations yesterday, state news agency Bernama said, with one gunman shot and believed to be dead.
“The mopping and searching will cover a wider area given there are signs the intruders moved to another location,” police inspector-general Ismail Omar told reporters. “The security forces are tracking down their movements and will take the appropriate action.”
Allies of the group in Manila said they had been in telephone contact with Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, the militants’ leader and the brother of the self-proclaimed sultan, who said the group had split up to avoid detection.
Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the group, said that 10 of the sultan’s followers had died in total, with 10 captured and four wounded.
“They will not come home and would rather die fighting if cornered,” he said of the remaining followers in Sabah.
The invaders landed from the nearby southern Philippines on February 12, claiming Sabah for their Manila-based “sultan” Jamalul Kiram III, tearing open a long-dormant territorial row and causing residents to flee nearby towns and villages.
The elderly Kiram appeared to thumb his nose at Malaysia yesterday, saying he had just chatted by phone with his younger brother, one of the incursion’s purported leaders.
“He was telling me they are eating good food, but the hard thing is they are being chased. So where will they go?” he said, declining to specify their location but adding that they would not surrender.
Kiram, 74, claims to be heir of the former sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled part of the southern Philippines and claimed sovereignty over Sabah. The intruders are attempting to reassert his claim to the remote area. A leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which waged a past insurgency against the Philippine government, warned of more trouble ahead, saying hardened fighters from his group had arrived to support the militants.
“Many have slipped through the security forces” in recent days, Muhajab Hashim said in Manila, adding more were expected to join the fray, but declining to reveal numbers.
“They know the area like the back of their hands because they trained there in the past,” he said, referring to long-standing allegations that Malaysia helped train MNLF leaders for their insurgency against Manila.
Army trucks carrying dozens of soldiers continued to enter the village of Kampung Tanduo where the group had originally been holed up. A helicopter hovered overhead. Fighter jets bombed the group’s camp in the Felda Sahabat plantation early on Tuesday after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said his patience had run out. Philippine officials had urged the group to return home.
The group says it represents the now defunct sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines and demands recognition and payment from Malaysia due to their claim to be rightful owners of Sabah. Britain, the US and Australia issued advisories warning against travel to affected areas.
Some suspect the MNLF orchestrated the offensive because they feared a peace deal being finalised between the Philippine government and another separatist group would marginalise them. Philippine presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said its navy intercepted 70 people trying to join the insurgents last month but added Manila had no knowledge of the claim of MNLF fighters heading to the conflict.
Filipinos flee hostilities in standoff
Hundreds of Filipino residents have fled northern Borneo amid fears of being caught in hostilities between Malaysian troops and followers of a Philippine sultan asserting ancestral rights over the territory, officials said yesterday.
About 280 Filipinos arrived in batches overnight in the southern Philippine province of Tawi-Tawi from Sabah, where Malaysian forces were hunting armed fighters of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III that set up camp in Lahad Datu town on February 12.
“They feel so afraid that they would be caught in the fighting, so they fled and brought their families with them,” said Ramon Santos, a regional civil defence director. The Office of Civil Defence has coordinated with local governments in the southern region of Mindanao to ensure support services for the returning Filipinos, he said.
“The priority is to ensure their safety, provide psycho-social debriefing, and help them find livelihoods so they can start a new life here,” he said.
Some 800,000 Filipinos live and work in Sabah, many of whom fled Mindanao at the height of Muslim insurgency in the 1970s.