Malaysia yesterday escalated its hunt for armed Philippine invaders who dodged a military assault meant to crush them, as a Philippine guerrilla said more fighters had arrived.
Malaysian Police Chief Ismail Omar said followers of the heir of a Muslim sultan had scattered after an air and ground attack on Tuesday on their stronghold in eastern Sabah State, aimed at ending the crisis.
Authorities had “expanded the operations area,” Omar told reporters in Felda Sahabat, a village about 15km from the site of the three-week standoff.
He said the expansion was necessary as invaders were on the move, adding that one gunman was believed to have been killed.
However, he declined to answer questions on whether any of the estimated 100 to 300 militants had been captured or confirmed dead.
The armed group arrived in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo from the adjacent southern Philippines on Feb. 12, claiming it for their sultan, Jamalul Kiram III, and tearing open a dormant territorial row.
After an initial standoff in Tanduo village, two shootouts erupted there and in another town in recent days, which together with related violence have left 19 militants and eight police officers reported dead.
Malaysia on Tuesday launched a fierce attack on Tanduo with jet fighters and soldiers.
However, Kiram appeared to be thumbing his nose at Malaysia yesterday, saying in Manila that he had just spoken by telephone to his younger brother, one of the incursion’s purported leaders.
“He was telling me they are eating good food, but the hard thing is they are being chased. So where will they go?” he said.
Kiram, 74, is the heir of the former sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled part of the southern Philippines and claimed sovereignty over Sabah. His followers are trying to reassert his authority there.
A leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which waged an insurgency against the Philippine government, said hardened fighters from his group had arrived to support the militants.
“Many have slipped through the security forces,” Muhajab Hashim told reporters in Manila, adding that more were expected.
“They know the area like the back of their hands because they trained there in the past,” he said, referring to long-standing allegations that Malaysia helped trained MNLF leaders for their insurgency.
Malaysia has been shocked by the drama and the government, which faces closely fought elections soon, has been harshly criticized over the breach and for dithering.
The news that militants were on the loose stoked the fears of locals already on edge over the incursion.
“If there are no more negotiations, I think more people on both sides will die,” resident Shamsul Bahari said.