Standoff in Sabah

The Philippine Star

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian security forces and around 100 heavily armed Filipinos believed to be militants from Mindanao have been locked in a standoff in an isolated coastal village in Sabah since Wednesday.

“The government is choosing to handle the issue through negotiation and to get the group to leave peacefully to prevent bloodshed,” the Malaysia Star online quoted Prime Minister Najib Razak as saying.

“We have surrounded the area and our police and armed forces have the ability to handle the matter,” Najib said.

In Manila, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it is “still trying to ascertain and complete the facts of this incident.”

“Our security and defense officials are in touch with their Malaysian counterparts in this regard. We are also being assisted in this effort by our embassy in Kuala Lumpur,” DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said.

Malaysia is a mediator in the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels in Mindanao.

Malaysia police chief Ismail Omar said in a statement late Wednesday that the gunmen intruded on Malaysian soil in the state of Sabah on Borneo island, a region with a history of incidents involving armed Filipino groups. The Philippines has a standing claim over Sabah.

“This intrusion is a result of the problems in the southern Philippines,” Ismail said, apparently referring to Muslim insurgency in Mindanao.

Ismail said security forces surrounded and ordered the gunmen to surrender in Sabah’s coastal town of Lahad Datu, 500 kilometers from the capital of Kota Kinabalu.

Malaysia Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters that security forces were negotiating with the armed men, most of them clad in fatigues.

“We know the situation is still under control. I confirm that no Malaysian citizens, to my knowledge, are being held hostage or for ransom,” Hishammuddin said, but declined to confirm that the gunmen were Filipinos.

But asked whether Philippine authorities were involved in negotiations, Hishammuddin said: “Of course they will have to be involved in the operations.”

Sabah’s eastern tip is less than an hour by speedboat from the nearest Philippine islands.

Speculation about the identity and motives of the intruders has included reports that they belong to Muslim guerrilla factions fleeing from recent violence in the Philippines, but some officials have indicated they might be guards for a Muslim royal family in the Sultanate of Sulu who failed to inform Malaysian authorities that they were traveling to Sabah.

A senior Philippine military official who declined to be named said the group indeed comprised unarmed members of the Sultanate of Sulu led by the Kiram family, who had arrived in the area to further press their claim on Sabah.

He said a meeting had attracted a large crowd and drawn the attention of Malaysian authorities.

“We know that these people arrived there five days ago and most of them are from nearby islands,” the official said.

“Some of them were already residents in Sabah for a long time and they normally cross the border without any problem,” the official added.

“Actually last week, after a series of meetings in Sulu in relation to their continuing claim to Sabah, they went there unarmed,” he said.

He said members of the group, mostly traders, had originally intended to go to Sabah to sell their wares.

The military official said many in the group had been enticed to join the Sabah trip by the Kiram family’s offer of land.

“We don’t want the Malaysian government to think that the incident in Sabah is sanctioned by the Philippine government. What happened was a private matter on the side of the Kirams, which to me has not violated any immigration laws being imposed by Malaysian government,” he said.

He said Malaysian patrols at first appeared to have not been alarmed by the arrival of the group. “We are talking. Our bilateral military relation is working. It so happened that the incident was overblown by media reports,” he said. 

Another military official, however, said the armed men involved in the standoff with the Malaysian security forces could be members of the terror group Abu Sayyaf.

“We have received similar reports but we cannot confirm, nor rule out, whether they are members of the ASG (Abu Sayyaf group),” said southern command military chief Lieutenant General Rey Ardo. “Other lawless elements as well as (Filipino) pirates are also known to stray into Malaysian waters.”

He said his command has stepped up patrols in the waters near Sabah. “Our Naval Task Force 62 deployed their water assets to secure the border,” Ardo said.

In 2000, the Abu Sayyaf seized 21 mostly Western holidaymakers at the Malaysian scuba diving resort of Sipadan, taking them off to Philippine islands. They were later ransomed.

Two Malaysians were kidnapped from a plantation in the area in November and were also believed to have been taken to Mindanao.

Last week, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces under Ustadz Habier Malik launched attacks on Abu Sayyaf strongholds in Patikul, Sulu to force the terror group to release kidnapped Jordanian broadcast journalist Baker Abdullah Atyani, bureau chief of the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news channel.

Reports said 21 members of the Abu Sayyaf led by one-armed Radullan Sahiron were killed in the encounter with MNLF forces. Atyani remains in Abu Sayyaf hands.

His two Filipino crewmen were freed ahead of the MNLF offensive last Feb. 2 in Patikul, Sulu.

Security on Sabah’s coast has been problematic for Malaysia, with tens of thousands of Filipinos believed to have immigrated illegally to the state over the past few decades.

In October, Manila reached a framework agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency that has left more than 150,000 people dead. Early this week, President Aquino visited an MILF camp in Maguindanao to dramatize his administration’s sincerity in forging a peace pact with Muslim rebels. – Jaime Laude, Pia Lee-Brago, Roel Pareño, AP











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