Malaysia sent hundreds of soldiers to a Borneo State yesterday to help neutralize armed Filipino intruders who have killed eight police officers in the country’s bloodiest security emergency in years.
Nineteen Filipino gunmen have also been slain since Friday in skirmishes that shocked Malaysians unaccustomed to such violence in their country, which border southern provinces in the Philippines and Thailand plagued by insurgency.
The main group of intruders comprises nearly 200 members of a Philippine Muslim clan, some bearing rifles, who slipped past naval patrols last month, landed at a remote Malaysian coastal village in Sabah State’s Lahad Datu District and said the territory was theirs.
Public attention focused yesterday on how to minimize casualties while apprehending the trespassers, who are surrounded by security forces, as well as an undetermined number of other armed Filipinos suspected to have encroached on two other districts within 300km of Lahad Datu.
Army reinforcements from other states in Malaysia were being deployed to Sabah and would help police bolster public confidence by patrolling various parts of the state’s eastern seaboard, Sabah police chief Hamza Taib said.
“The situation is under control now,” Hamza said.
“There will be cooperation” between the military and the police he said.
He declined to elaborate on specific strategies or on a call by former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad for lethal action.
“There is no way out other than launching a counter-attack to eliminate” the intruders, Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama quoted Mahathir as saying on Sunday. “Although many of them will be killed, this cannot be avoided because they had attacked Sabah, and not the other way round.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak declared over the weekend that security forces were authorized to “take any action deemed necessary.”
A number activists say the crisis illustrates an urgent need to review border security and immigration policies for Sabah, where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have headed in recent decades — many of them illegally — to seek work and stability.
Groups of Filipino militants have occasionally also crossed into Sabah to stage kidnappings, including one that involved island resort vacationers in 2000. Malaysia has repeatedly intensified patrols, but the long and porous sea border with the Philippines remains difficult to guard.
Many in Muslim-majority Malaysia advocated patience in handling the Lahad Datu intruders, who arrived on Feb. 9.
However, the deaths of the Malaysian police officers, including six who were ambushed while inspecting a waterfront village in a separate Sabah district on Saturday, have triggered widespread alarm over the possibility of more such intrusions and demands for a swift resolution.
The Filipinos who landed in Lahad Datu, a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, have rebuffed calls for them to leave, saying ownership documents from the late 1800s prove the territory is theirs. The group is led by a brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the Philippines’ Sulu province, while the identities of other suspected Philippine intruders whose presence became known in two more Sabah districts over the weekend are unclear.
Edwin Lacierda, spokesman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, reiterated calls in Manila for the followers of the Kiram clan to surrender and return home, adding that the Philippine government would then look into their property claim to Sabah.
“We continue to ask them that life is a better option than death,” Lacierda told ABS-CBN TV. “These casualties, the wounded, the fatalities, are all the product of what we have been trying to avoid, the bloodshed.”
The Philippine government is continuing to exert pressure on the clan to peacefully end the standoff and is also concerned about the safety of 800,000 Filipinos living and working in Sabah, Lacierda added.