Malaysia on lookout for Abu Sayyaf rebels fleeing with Filipinos

 Philippine soldiers arrive at a camp after an armed encounter with members of Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao on Aug 26, 2016.
Philippine soldiers arrive at a camp after an armed encounter with members of Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao on Aug 26, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

KOTA KINABALU • Malaysia is on high alert for Abu Sayyaf members fleeing among hundreds of Filipinos for Sabah, after the Philippine military's offensive in the country's south.

The authorities say an estimated 400 Filipinos are waiting for the "right time" to breach the Eastern Sabah Security Command's (Esscom's) security cordon, among them elements of the militant group who plan to turn Sabah into their outpost, reported The New Straits Times.

Federal police special branch director Mohamad Fuzi Harun told the paper that intelligence showed Abu Sayyaf would intensify its kidnap-for-ransom operations to fund the organisation.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sent 10,000 soldiers to southern Philippines, including the provinces of Sulu and Basilan, to eliminate more than 400 heavily armed militants.

"The threat is imminent...There is only one direction that they are heading, and it is towards our shores," Datuk Seri Fuzi told The New Straits Times.

"We will not allow them to enter. Our security forces will arrest them the minute they pass the country's maritime border."

Malaysia has deployed more manpower and assets to protect the 1,700km maritime border it shares with the Philippines.

"The military, together with Esscom, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and police, is working...to hold the fort," National Security Council director-general Zulkifeli Mohd Zin told The New Straits Times.

General Zulkifeli, who is also armed forces chief, said reports that hundreds of Filipinos are seeking refuge on islands close to the Malaysian border were credible.

As many as 400 of them, including rebels, are thought to be on the islands of Taganak and Bakkungan, hoping to get to Sandakan, the second-largest town in Sabah.

Said General Zulkifeli: "They are waiting to cross into Sabah and assimilate with their relatives and friends, who stand ready to harbour them."

Police picked up 37 Filipinos from the waters off Sandakan last week. Eighteen of them were from Basilan, while the rest were from Jolo, Abu Sayyaf's stronghold.

Sabah marine police chief Mohamad Mandun said that after questioning the 37 Filipinos, it did not seem they were members of any terrorist groups.

Last Thursday, 20 Abu Sayyaf militants in Basilan surrendered after the Philippine military's offensive.

Since 1991, the group has carried out attacks such as bombings, kidnappings and assassinations in the name of fighting for an independent Islamic province in the Philippines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'Malaysia on lookout for Abu Sayyaf rebels fleeing with Filipinos'. Print Edition | Subscribe