A Malaysian army commando on a truck moves on the way to joining an assault near the area where a stand-off with Filipino gunmen took place, in Tanduo village, Lahad Datu, Borneo's Sabab state, Malaysia on March 5, 2013. Photo: AP
FELDA SAHABAT: Malaysian forces have searched houses for armed Filipino invaders who apparently escaped a military assault, as a Philippine guerrilla warned more fighters had arrived.
Malaysia on Tuesday launched an attack with jet fighters and soldiers on up to 300 Filipino invaders to end a bloody three-week standoff. Prime Minister Najib Razak had declared the operation was ‘‘weeding out’’ the holed-up followers of a self-styled Muslim sultan from the Philippines who had come to assert a long-dormant claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah.
"As the intrusion prolonged, it was clear that the intruders had no intention to leave Sabah," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Tuesday. "The government must take action to defend the country's dignity and sovereignty."
Police moved cautiously in an area slightly larger than New York City's Central Park to find followers of Jamalul Kiram, a Filipino who asserts he's the sultan of Sulu. Authorities have yet to release a death toll from Tuesday's aerial and ground attacks, which came after earlier clashes between Malaysian police and Kiram's followers killed 31 people.
The battle on Borneo Island erupted weeks before elections in both countries, with Mr Najib facing a late-April deadline to dissolve parliament as his ruling coalition seeks to maintain a 55-year grip on power. It also comes as Philippine President Benigno Aquino aims to conclude a peace deal with a Muslim separatist group that Mr Najib is helping to broker.
The Philippines and Malaysia will form a naval blockage to prevent more Filipinos heading to Sabah as reinforcements, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said. An exit channel should be created for woman and children caught in the fighting, it said.
Malaysian security forces operating in Sabah's Tanduo village are being cautious to avoid more bloodshed, state-run Bernama news agency reported, citing Inspector-General of Police Ismail Omar. Malaysia suffered no injuries, and casualties in Kiram's group couldn't be assessed, Bernama reported, citing Home Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein.
Three F-18 and five Hawk fighter aircraft were used in the attack, Bernama cited Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as saying.
Agbimuddin Kiram, the self-proclaimed crown prince of Sulu and brother of Jamalul, said that he couldn't confirm casualties. About 180 members of the group, including 30 with weapons, invaded Sabah about three weeks ago.
"There will be no surrender," Jamalul Kiram's spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, said at a briefing in Manila Tuesday, adding that the group's followers fear for their lives.
Eight Malaysian police officers and 23 Kiram loyalists
have been killed in shootouts since March 1. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario held talks with his counterpart after arriving in Malaysia earlier this week, Najib's spokesman, Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, said. In a statement Tuesday, Malaysia's foreign ministry said it considered the group to be "terrorists."
The Sulu sultanate, which dates back to the 14th century, says it leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Company in 1878, an agreement that Malaysia views as a secession of the region. Sabah fell under British control after World War II and joined Malaysia in 1963, shortly after the sultanate ceded sovereignty to the Philippines.
The incident comes several months after Najib's government helped Aquino reach a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist group in the southern Philippines. The Moro National Liberation Front, a splinter rebel group, called the accord -- which will expand the country's autonomous Muslim region -- a conspiracy between Mr Aquino and Mr Najib for Malaysia to retain sovereignty of Sabah.
"Any agreement will be problematic and will be questioned" because Sabah wasn't included in the self-governing region, said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace Violence and Terrorism Research. "There will be consequences on the peace talks."
Mr Aquino risks putting the country in "total chaos" if he orders the arrest of Jamalul Kiram, said Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front.
"It's unbecoming for a head of state to be siding with the enemy of his people," Mr Misuari said. "What kind of leader are you if you abandon your own people for the sake of his friendship with colonial troublemaker Malaysia?"
Mr Aquino tried to solve the conflict peacefully by sending intermediaries and agreeing to study the legal basis of the Sulu sultanate's territorial claims, Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said.
"There's only so much we can do if the Kirams insist on this course of action," he wrote. "It defies logic."
Mr Aquino on March 4 accused allies of former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo of involvement in the incident, saying that "certain members of the past administration" assisted Jamalul Kiram, who ran for a Senate seat in 2007 elections under Arroyo's party. Elena Horn, a spokeswoman for Ms Arroyo, didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
"We came to Malaysia to endeavor to walk that last mile to try to save lives in this unfortunate conflict," Mr del Rosario said in a statement issued by his department's spokesman yesterday. "We intend to fully continue this effort."
The Philippines will hold elections for its 285-member House of Representatives and half of its 24 Senate seats on May 13. Mindanao has 11.4 million voters, making up a quarter of the nation's total, according to government data.
The US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur issued an advisory urging citizens to avoid visiting the eastern coastal regions of Sabah, which provide access to nearby islands including Sipadan, a popular diving site.
Najib must dissolve parliament by April 28 and hold elections within 60 days. His government called for unity on March 4 after Anwar Ibrahim's opposition alliance accused him of "weak leadership" in handling the conflict.
The outcome will raise questions about the government's ability to defend Malaysia, according to Joseph Chinyong Liow, associate dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
"Malaysians will want to know how on earth this large a number of people got into Malaysian soil and gained a foothold," he said. "The followers of the Sulu sultan are prepared to fight to the end. That sets the whole thing up for a pretty gruesome outcome."