Filipino residents fleeing the Malaysian state of Sabah arrive with their belongings in the southern Philippines. Photo: AP
Malaysian troops began a ground and aerial assault on armed insurgents in the eastern state of Sabah today to end a standoff with a Muslim clan from the Philippines that invaded last month to assert a territorial claim.
"This is to soften the ground before troops move in," a spokesman for Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a phone interview, confirming the assault by seven battalions began at about 7am local time. "We want to get them out."
At least 31 people have died over the past week in clashes between Malaysian police and followers of Jamalul Kiram, a Filipino who asserts he's the sultan of Sulu, and who is pressing a centuries-old territorial claim to commodities-rich Sabah.
The Sulu sultanate 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.
Eight Malaysian police officers and 23 Kiram loyalists have been killed in shootouts since March 1. The Philippines' Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was updated on the situation after arriving in Malaysia for talks with his counterpart Anifah Aman late yesterday, the Malaysian prime minister's office said.
Meanwhile, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has implicated the former president Gloria Arroyo in the invasion.
Mr Aquino implied that allies of Ms Arroyo were involved in the incursion, saying that "certain members of the past administration" assisted Mr Kiram, who ran for a Senate seat in the 2007 elections under Ms Arroyo's party. Mr Aquino called on the group to surrender, and said they would face charges.
"There are those who conspired to bring us to this situation – a situation that has no immediate solutions," Mr Aquino said. "Some of their identities are clear to us, while others continue to skulk in the shadows. The family of Sultan Jamalul Kiram could not possibly have settled on this course of action alone."
A spokeswoman for Ms Arroyo, Elena Horn, did not return calls.
Supporters of the Jamlul Kiram group took to cyberspace, manipulating Google search listings and hacking into websites to show messages backing their obscure historic claim to the area.
The website of Stamford College in Malaysia was hacked and a message included: "the time has come to claim what is truly ours . . . Sabah is owned by the Philippines".
A Wikipedia page on Sabah carried a message calling Malaysia's control of the territory "illegitimate".
Evidence has emerged that the arrival of up to 200 intruders claiming to be the "royal army" of the Sultan of Sulu involved using elderly men and women as decoys on a flotilla of boats that arrived in Lahad Datu district, in a remote part of Sabah, three weeks ago.
Before Malaysian authorities knew of their presence, the intruders had evacuated families from villages where they were holed up.
Carrying M-16 automatic weapons and explosives and wearing army fatigues, the men showed they had combat experience and adeptness in insurgency tactics, Malaysian army officers have told journalists. This prompted speculation they may have served in militant groups fighting for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.
The island of Tawi-Tawi, where at least some of the intruders are believed to have come from, is only an hour's boat ride from the Sabah coast.
The crisis has raised concerns about instability in Sabah, which is rich in resources, including oil and gas fields.
The intruders claim they are descendants of the sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, which ruled parts of northern Borneo for centuries before the area was leased to a British company in the 19th century and later absorbed by Malaysia.
Malaysian security forces have attempted to bolster public confidence among Sabah residents amid reports intruders have encroached into several districts hundreds of kilometres apart.
"The situation is now under control," Sabah police chief Hamza Tabib told reporters.
But Malaysa's prime minister Najib Razak, facing national elections within weeks, earlier declared that security forces were authorised to "take any action deemed necessary". Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad bluntly called for the elimination of the intruders.
"Although many of them will be killed, this cannot be avoided because they had attacked Sabah, and not the other way 'round," Dr Mahathir said.
But the Philippines foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario urged "maximum tolerance" in the hunt for the militants.
Mr Rosario is seeking permission for the Philippines to deploy a navy ship to Sabah to provide humanitarian assistance and to take the Filipinos back to the Philippines.
An estimated 800,000 Filipinos work on Sabah, many of them in palm oil plantations.
As the crisis has unfolded, Malaysia has been deporting hundreds of Filipinos who were without immigration documentation.