MANILA, Philippines - From the air and ground, Malaysian forces pounded areas in Sabah where supporters of the Sulu sultanate had holed out, forcing the Filipinos to split into smaller groups and shift to guerrilla warfare.
By mid-afternoon yesterday, Kuala Lumpur announced that the sultanate’s army had been “totally routed…defeated.”
In Manila, however, relatives of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III said his supporters would continue fighting.
Reports said F-18 Hornet and Hawk fighter jets strafed and bombed thickly forested areas where the sultan’s forces were believed to be entrenched.
Russian-made Sukhoi helicopters flew overhead while snipers picked out the Filipino gunmen as armored vehicles rumbled into villages abandoned by residents fleeing the violence.
A senior Moro National Liberation Front official who asked not to be named said the Malaysians had embarked on a “search and destroy” operation. MNLF members are with the sultan’s army in Sabah.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said he had no choice but to unleash the military to try to end an incursion that had already killed 27 people.
A day after President Aquino called for restraint, Malaysia
launched the assault, with fighter jets bombing the standoff village of Tanduo in Sabah, followed by a ground assault by troops. Malaysia has also deployed armored vehicles to crush what it calls an invasion.
“The longer this invasion lasts, it is clear to the authorities that the invaders do not intend to leave Sabah,” Najib said, adding that negotiations with the intruders had gone nowhere.
“The government must take action to safeguard the dignity and sovereignty of the country as required by the people,” he said.
The gunmen’s apparent willingness to die over a long-dormant territorial dispute has shocked Muslim-majority Malaysia.
The crisis began when Kiram’s followers sailed from Tawi-Tawi to Lahad Datu in Sabah to claim the territory for the Sulu sultanate.
The group has been holed up in the village since landing by boat last Feb. 9 in an incursion that highlighted lax Malaysian security and the continuing threat from Islamists in lawless parts of Mindanao.
Kiram’s brother Agbimuddin led the Sabah incursion.
At least two fighter jets were seen roaring overhead early yesterday, followed by the thud of loud explosions, a Malaysian reporter positioned about 20 kilometers from the clash told AFP by phone.
“There was a series of explosions in Tanduo. Intense bombing lasted for about half an hour,” followed by sporadic blasts, he said.
Amid the assault, military transport helicopters could be seen 30 kilometers from Tanduo flying toward the village, as three military trucks with dozens of soldiers and several ambulances also sped toward the scene.
Malaysia police chief Ismail Omar told reporters at a press conference hours after the operation began that security forces were still taking fire from defiant insurgents, but had launched “mopping up” operations.
Ismail said he had no firm figure on militant casualties, and added there appeared to be no loss of lives among Malaysian forces, which also included police commandos.
Aquino’s spokesman blamed the followers of Kiram for the assault. “We’ve done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end, Kiram’s people chose this path,” said Ricky Carandang of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office.
After a lengthy standoff, violence erupted in Tanduo on Friday with a shootout that left 12 of the gunmen and two police officers dead.
Another gun battle Saturday in the town of Semporna, hours away by road, left six police and six gunmen dead, raising fears of a wider guerrilla infiltration.
Another gunman was reportedly beaten to death by Semporna residents.
The drama may not end at Tanduo, which is set amid vast palm oil plantations.
Police said on the weekend they were hunting for a group of “foreign” gunmen in yet another town, but have provided no further updates.
Followers of Kiram have said they were ready to die for the cause and warned more militants were poised to land in Sabah.
Sea crossing banned
In Zamboanga City, police are on alert for possible attempts by Kiram’s followers to cross over to Sabah to reinforce their comrades.
Senior Superintendent Joselito Salido, Tawi-Tawi provincial police director, confirmed attempts by several men to sail to Sabah to help Kiram’s beleaguered armed followers.
“That is the order from higher headquarters, to prevent them from going there,” Salido said.
He said about 67 of the sultanate’s followers arrived in Bongao in preparation for a sea journey to Sabah but were advised not to pursue their plans.
“We negotiated and talked with them to reconsider their plans as this will only contribute to the problem,” Salido said.
He said the men came from Basilan and Sulu and were unarmed. He stressed the situation in Bongao was calm.
Meanwhile, a boat packed with fleeing residents of Sabah arrived shortly before noon yesterday in Sibuto, according to Salido.
The refugees said they fled Sabah due to rising hostilities in the territory. He said Malaysian authorities allowed them to leave.
A source, however, said many followers of the sultan were able to slip out of Mindanao and take refuge in Kunak, Semporna and Lahad Datu in Sabah waiting for instructions from the sultan.
Many towns are deserted as villagers fled to escape the violence.
“We are really getting worried because our neighbors have already evacuated,” a source said.
Based in the Sulu islands, the sultanate once controlled parts of Borneo, including Sabah. Its power faded about a century ago but its heirs have continued to insist on ownership of resource-rich Sabah and still receive nominal Malaysian payments under a leasing deal originally struck by Western colonial powers.
The exact identities of the gunmen and their numbers have remained a mystery. Malaysia’s opposition has criticized authorities for providing inadequate information on the mayhem and being caught flat-footed by the invaders.
Sabah has seen small raids by Islamic militants and criminals coming by boat from the Philippines before, but nothing on the current scale.
Malaysian media, meanwhile, said the sultanate’s fighters have been “totally defeated” by the country’s combined military and police forces.
Malaysia’s The Star Online said the situation in Sabah’s east coast had been declared “under control” even as security forces remained on high alert in some areas.
“The Sulu armed group was totally routed by Malaysian security forces’ overwhelming firepower unleashed at 7 a.m. Tuesday, police sources said,” the report read.
“The situation in all parts of east coast Sabah was described as under control by the police and the army, who are on high alert at strategic locations as there have been threats of retaliation from the Sulu sultan’s followers,” it added.
Tan Sri Omar Ismail, Malaysian police Inspector-General, was quoted by The Star Online as saying that the Malaysian forces did not suffer any casualty and that they had “totally routed” the Filipinos.
“Negotiations to resolve the standoff failed peacefully and on Tuesday morning, fighter jets took to the air and pounded the village, followed by elite police teams who went in to finish the job,” The Star Online said.
Kuala Lumpur said it ordered the attack to protect the country’s sovereignty.
“The government must take action to safeguard the dignity and sovereignty of the country as demanded by the people,” the Malaysian prime minister said in his Facebook page.
“What we want to tell Malaysians is that the armed forces’ operation to defend the nation’s sovereignty has been fruitful,” Malaysian Defense Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was quoted by state-run news agency Bernama as saying.
Najib called on Malaysians to support their fighters and to pray for those who fought in Lahad Datu and Semporna.
“We will not allow anyone to threaten our national sovereignty,” the Malaysian prime minister said. With Alexis Romero, Roel Pareño, Jaime Laude