Sabah assault: 15 dead
Pia Lee-Brago, Jaime Laude (The Philippine Star) - March 2, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - A standoff between Malaysian security forces and followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III ended in violence yesterday, with two Malaysian police officers and a Sabah villager and up to 12 of Kiram’s men killed as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak declared his patience had run out.

Najib, quoted by state news agency Bernama, confirmed the Malaysian police deaths and said that 10 to 12 Filipinos had been killed after their group tried to break through a security cordon around a village in Lahad Datu where they had been holed up since Feb. 9.

Malacañang confirmed the deaths and called the turn of events “saddening.”

“We regret the loss of lives,” Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang told reporters last night after a meeting with President Aquino and other officials.

“We condole with the families of those who were lost,” Carandang said, adding that the standoff could not be considered over because Malaysian forces and followers of Kiram were still in the area.

“There now exists a small window of opportunity to arrive at a peaceful conclusion to the situation in Lahad Datu; we are exerting every effort to seize that opportunity, and are hopeful that the Kiram family and their followers will seize it with us, so that further bloodshed may be avoided,”  Carandang said.

“Since the onset, our primary goal had been to resolve the situation without violence. That is why President Aquino urged the followers of the Kiram family to lay down their arms and return home, so that their grievances can be addressed through sober, productive dialogue,” Carandang said.

Carandang said they could not confirm reports that a crackdown on Filipinos in Sabah had begun because of the incident.

The group that battled with Malaysian forces was led by the sultan’s brother Agbimuddin, also called Raja Muda or crown prince.

More than 200 followers of the Sultanate of Sulu landed in Sabah last month, declaring the territory as their homeland.

Both the Philippine and Malaysian governments had repeatedly urged them to return home.

Reports said most of the Filipino gunmen had fled the fighting.

Najib said he had now given Malaysian security forces a mandate to take “any action” against the group.

“Do not test our patience, our patience has reached the limit,” he was quoted as saying earlier.

“We have a plan to remove them, they should have surrendered and left,” said Najib, who must call national elections by April and has come under pressure from the opposition for allowing the bizarre standoff to drag on.

Three Malaysian police officers were wounded in the shootout, police said.

The Philippines only confirmed one death among the group, saying that 10 had surrendered while the rest had fled towards the sea.

The sultanate’s spokesman Abraham Idjirani told reporters in Manila that the men had moved to another location to continue their fight and urged Malaysia to hold talks.

The confrontation had threatened to reignite tension between the Philippines and Malaysia. Ties have been periodically frayed by security and migration problems along their sea border.

The group is demanding recognition from Malaysia and renegotiation of the original terms of a lease on Sabah by the sultanate to a British trading company in the 19th century.

Bernama said two Malaysian policemen were killed in a mortar attack launched by the Filipinos.

Idjirani said 10 of the sultanate’s soldiers and a 28-year-old mother were killed in the attack started by Malaysian security forces.

News reports from Kota Kinabalu, quoting Lahad Datu residents, said scores of wounded Malaysian security forces had been seen being transported out of Tanduo village near Lahad Datu on military trucks.

The firefight began at 10 a.m. yesterday. By noon, Malaysian snipers were reportedly seen picking targets in the coastal town, according to Agbimuddin in a radio interview. 

He said the Malaysian forces were only about 300 meters from his men.

“They came upon us so we had to defend ourselves,” Agbimuddin said.

He said they had the names of two fatalities in the sultan’s side but declined to reveal them at the moment.

“We appeal to you not to name them first so their relatives in Sulu will not react violently,” he said.

He also appealed for prayers from both the Muslim and Christian communities in the Philippines as he bared plans by the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo and the Kiram family to raise the incident before the Red Crescent and the Red Cross.

He also denied reports that Malaysian commandos had arrested Agbimuddin.

“We would like to deny the report in regard to the status of Raja Muda Kiram. We just talked to him, he is well, he’s not wounded, he is still leading the struggle. He is not among those killed or captured as reported by the Malaysian embassy. That (report) that the Raja Mudah is already captured and now in the hands of the Malaysian police commandos is false,” he said.

Idjirani said Agbimuuddin – referred to as Azzimudie by the Malaysian press –  called him up early yesterday to report that Malaysian forces were already “penetrating the ground.” It was at around 10:30 a.m. when Malaysian commandos opened fire at Kiram’s men, killing 10 of them and injuring scores of others.

“We got this information directly from Raja Muda. So who are we going to believe? The people announcing from Malacañang or the Raja Muda himself?”

Idjirani said the sultanate had been made to believe that the problem would be finally resolved peacefully.

Standoff over

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Malaysian Ambassador Mohammad Zamri bin Mohammad Kassim met yesterday afternoon with Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario to inform the latter of the assault.

“Secretary Del Rosario had a meeting with the Malaysian Ambassador at 2 this afternoon where Ambassador Kassim informed the secretary that the Malaysian authorities had conducted assault at Lahad Datu at 10 (yesterday) morning,” DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said in a press briefing. “The ambassador said that the standoff is now over.”

The ambassador also informed Del Rosario that two police officers and a civilian were killed in the firefight. The DFA could not immediately confirm the casualties.

“We do not have any confirmation of those who have been wounded and who might have been killed during the operation based on our validation. We do not have the details of the operation yet,” Hernandez said.

According to Hernandez, Del Rosario handed a note verbale to the ambassador requesting clearance from the Malaysian government for the Philippine Navy ship BRP Tagbanua to proceed to Lahad Datu to bring Philippine medical personnel and provisions for the remaining supporters of Kiram.

“For those wounded as well as the others who might be arrested, we would like to have full access to them so that we can offer and extend consular assistance to the group,” he added.

The ship was dispatched Sunday night to ferry back civilians and supporters of Kiram.

The ship sailed from Bongao, Tawi-Tawi to the village of Tanduo in Lahad Datu.

The government appealed to the members of the Sultanate of Sulu’s “royal army” to leave Sabah for their own safety and vowed to address the core issues the “royal army” had raised.

The Philippines requested Malaysia to extend for several days the deadline for the supporters of Kiram to leave Sabah. There was no Malaysian response to the request.

Attack ‘uncalled for’

The sultan’s daughter Princess Jacel Kiram lashed out at Malaysia for launching the attack even as negotiations to end the standoff peacefully were ongoing.

“The unprovoked assault on the Lahad Datu encampment was uncalled for. We suffered now 14 casualties – 10 dead and four wounded. Blood has flowed,” she said.

“For the past two days, formal and informal talks have been initiated towards a peaceful settlement and disarmament has been discussed,” she said. “Up to now, sniping continues. Do we want more bloodshed or do we want this bloodshed to stop? We pose this question to the Malaysian government.”

She added that her uncle Agbimuddin “decided to go to Lahad Datu with 234 men with the firm belief to settle there peacefully and to defend their right to live in their homeland.”

“We appeal to the Malaysian government to please clarify: Are we engaging in a dialogue or is this an act of unilateral violence against the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo? We appeal for sobriety. The Sultan has ordered his brother to restrain but to be always ready to defend themselves,” she added.

She said violence could have been averted had the Philippine government stuck to its commitment to pursue dialogue and ensure a peaceful end to the standoff.

For her part, the sultan’s wife Fatima Cecilia Kiram accused Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II of speaking for Malaysia.

“I don’t know if he is the spokesperson or is he speaking in behalf of Malaysia. Where is his patriotism as Filipino? Filipinos had been hurt, but why defend the enemy?” she said.

“It is sad to say that you are saying that the military of Malaysia is so patient. Instead of defending our people who are willing to sacrifice for the historical truth, to tell the world that we have been belittled, to tell the world that our people in Sabah are being deported inhumanely and yet he is speaking for Malaysia – that Malaysia is so patient, so patient, according to his statement,” Fatima said.

“He is defending Malaysia instead of his co-Filipinos. He is an anti-Muslim,” she added.

“The Filipinos in Sabah are feeling the same thing. If we can only swim to Sabah we will go there to defend it, even if we have to die in the process,” she said.

For the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Malaysia’s use of force would result in the escalation of hostilities in Sabah or possibly civil war.

“I am afraid there will be a civil war in Sabah because thousands of Bangsamoro are residing in Sabah,” Haji Gapul Hajirul, MNLF political chief, said.

“It’s only MNLF chairman Nur (Misuari) who could decide on the matter. Whatever his decision, we will follow,” Hajirul said. “Our Tausug brothers and sisters of Sulu and the Samals in Tawi-Tawi were saddened and are hurting by the turn of the events.”

More than 8,500 Filipinos, mostly Tausugs, are residing in Sabah and are potential supporters of the Sultanate of Sulu. Malaysia is paying the Sultanate of Sulu 5,300 ringgit annually as lease.

Meanwhile, the Makati City Police yesterday beefed up its presence around the Malaysian embassy on Tordesillas St. in Salcedo Village. With Mike Frialde, Roel Pareño


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