Malaysian police yesterday said they had arrested 79 people in Sabah state on the island of Borneo, as skirmishes to end a month-long incursion by armed Filipino Islamists left one more dead.
The death of a suspected militant in a shootout yesterday raised the toll to 61, as Malaysian authorities pursued scores of Filipino gunmen who landed in Sabah last month to resurrect long-dormant land claims.
Federal police chief Ismail Omar said operations to “flush out” the intruders were continuing, with one militant shot dead as he sought to escape a security cordon around two villages and overgrown plantation and swamp land.
“Up to now the police have arrested 79 suspects whom we believe have some links with the intrusion,” he said.
Ismail said on Friday that police had arrested more than 50 men and women outside the battle zone under a security law.
They were being investigated for “committing terrorist acts,” the New Straits Times reported.
Malaysia has vowed to end the incursion, its worst security crisis in years, and rejected a ceasefire call made by the leader of the fighters, who are followers of a Filipino sultan.
The sultan’s officials say about 235 people took part in the mission to reassert a historical claim over Sabah, just a short boat ride from the southern Philippines.
Since they landed on Feb. 12, the main group of militants had been holed up in a sleepy farming village until two deadly shootouts with security forces a week ago triggered a military assault that scattered them.
However, reports of other gunmen elsewhere along the coast have sparked fears of a wider infiltration by fighters and the possibility of sympathizers already in Malaysia helping them.
Malaysian authorities say eight policemen and 53 militants have been killed in the crisis.
International rights group Human Rights Watch yesterday echoed a call by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ensure the protection of civilians and for humanitarian access to help those affected by the violence.
“The situation on the ground in the conflict zone in Sabah is still quite murky, and the government of Malaysia should provide clear and accurate information on what has occurred,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy-director Phil Robertson said.
The group said it was concerned over the use of a new security law to detain dozens of suspects and urged the government to charge or release them.