The Malaysian military launched a fierce assault yesterday on up to 300 Philippine intruders locked in a three-week deadly standoff that has become the country’s biggest security crisis in years, as their leader vowed they would fight to the death.
Malaysian 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 and began when militants invaded to claim Malaysian territory for a past Philippine sultanate.
However, Malaysian National Police Chief Ismail Omar said more than nine hours after the attack began that “mopping up” operations had yet to find any dead militants, and expressed fears that at least some might have slipped away.
A day after the Philippines called for restraint, Malaysia launched the assault with fighter jets bombing the standoff village of Tanduo in Sabah State on the northern tip of Borneo island, followed by a ground assault by troops.
“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 estimated 100 to 300 intruders had gone nowhere. “The government must take action to safeguard the dignity and sovereignty of the country as required by the people.”
Followers of Jamalul Kiram III, the heir to the Sulu sultanate, have said they were ready to die for the cause and warned more militants were poised to land in Sabah.
“The crown prince, the royal security forces, and the many patriots who landed [in Sabah] voluntarily will fight to the last man protecting their ideals and aspirations,” Kiram said yesterday in Manila.
The group’s willingness to die over a long-dormant territorial dispute has shocked Malaysia. They has been holed up in the village since landing by boat last month in an incursion that highlighted lax Malaysian security and the continuing threat from Islamists in the lawless south of the Philippines.
At least two fighter jets were spotted roaring overhead early yesterday, followed by the thud of loud explosions, a Malaysian reporter about 20km away from the clash told media 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, a reporter at a roadblock 30km from Tanduo saw Malaysian military transport helicopters flying toward the village, as three military trucks with dozens of soldiers and several ambulances also sped toward the scene.
Ismail said he had no firm figure on militant casualties, addinh that Malaysian forces had suffered no casualties.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s spokesman blamed the intruders — followers of 74-year-old Manila-based Islamic leader Jamalul Kiram III — for the assault.
“We’ve done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end, Kiram’s people chose this path,” Aquino spokesman Ricky Carandang said.
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.
The drama may not end at Tanduo, which is set amid vast oil palm plantations.
Police at the weekend said they were hunting for a group of “foreign” gunmen in another town, but have provided no further updates.
Based in the Philippines’ 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.