Sabah stand-off: Malaysia hunts for invaders as 'more fighters join'
FELDA SAHABAT, Malaysia (AFP) - Malaysia on Wednesday escalated its hunt for armed Filipino invaders who dodged a military assault meant to crush them, as a Philippine guerrilla warned more fighters had arrived.
Malaysia's police chief Ismail Omar said followers of a self-styled Muslim sultan had scattered after an air and ground attack on Tuesday on their stronghold in eastern Sabah state, aimed at ending the country's worst security crisis in years.
"We have expanded the operations area from the original area I mentioned yesterday to specific areas nearby," he said in Felda Sahabat, a village about 15 km from the site of the three-week standoff.
He said "the invaders are moving", giving no details, and that security forces were in pursuit, adding that one gunman was believed killed in an early morning exchange of fire.
However, he declined to answer reporters' questions on whether any of the estimated 100-300 militants, whom Prime Minister Najib Razak had vowed to "weed out", had been captured or confirmed dead.
The armed group arrived in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island from the adjacent southern Philippines on Feb. 12, claiming it for their "sultan" and tearing open a long-dormant territorial row.
After an initial standoff in the sleepy farming village of Tanduo, two shootouts erupted there and in another town in recent days, which together with related violence has left 19 militants and eight police officers reported dead.
Following the shootings, Malaysia launched an attack on Tanduo with jet fighters and soldiers on Tuesday.
But a leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which waged an insurgency against the Philippine government until 1996, said hardened fighters from his Muslim group had arrived to support the militants.
"Many have slipped through the security forces," Muhajab Hashim told AFP in Manila, adding more were expected to join the fray.
"We were told that they left in batches over the weekend," he said, declining to give a specific number. "They are now there in Sabah fighting with our Muslim brothers." "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 in their insurgency against the Philippines.
Malaysians, accustomed to watching neighbours Thailand and the Philippines grapple with Muslim insurgents, have been shocked by the drama.
The government, which faces closely fought elections in coming months, has been harshly criticised over the breach and for appearing to dither.
The news that militants remained on the loose stoked the fears of local residents already on edge over the stunning incursion into their remote corner of Borneo island, which is covered by vast oil palm and other plantations.
"If there are no more negotiations I think more people on both sides will die," local resident Shamsul Bahari said.
"I am scared to even go to work in the palm oil estate."
An AFP reporter saw eight military trucks moving out toward Tanduo Wednesday from Felda Sahabat, which is the nearest point to the troublespot that authorities are allowing outsiders to have access to.
The trucks were full of soldiers in full battle gear and followed by two armoured personnel carriers.
Britain, the United States and Australia issued advisories warning their citizens against travelling to parts of eastern Sabah.
Observers have speculated MNLF members were behind the offensive because they feared a peace deal being finalised between the Philippine government and another Muslim separatist group would marginalise them.
Philippine presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda told AFP Wednesday its navy intercepted 70 people last month trying to join Kiram's followers from the southern Philippines.
He said "we have no reports to that effect," when asked of Hashim's claim of MNLF fighters on the way.
The intruders are followers of Jamalul Kiram III, 74, the Manila-based self-proclaimed heir of the former sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled part of the southern Philippines and claimed sovereignty over Sabah.