KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Malaysian troops launched an attack on an armed Filipino group on Tuesday, trying to end a standoff on Borneo island after violence in recent days that killed at least 27 people, a Malaysian government official said.
The operation to take over an area occupied by about 180 Filipinos, dozens of them armed, began at 7 am local time, a spokesman for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said. The government sent seven army battalions to the area in eastern Sabah state on Monday to reinforce police.
Two policemen were killed along with 12 militants when Malaysian security forces tried to tighten a cordon around the armed group on Friday. That sparked more violence over the weekend with six policemen and seven more gunmen killed in another area, raising concerns the violence was spreading.
"After the first attack, I have asserted that the intruders must surrender and if they refuse the authorities of this country will take action," Mr Najib said in a statement.
Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (third from right) and Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (third from left) arriving amid tight security on March 4, 2013 at an airbase near Lahad Datu, Sabah. -- PHOTO: BERNAMA
Noraziah Noor (seated left) and Nurunisa Abu Bakar (second from right), the wives of Inspector Zulkifli Mamat and Corporal Sabarudin Daud respectively, who are the members of the Malaysian Police 69th Commando Battalion killed in the standoff between Malaysian security forces and armed followers of the Sultanate of Sulu, recite a prayer as they wait for the arrival of their bodies at an airport in Subang, outside Kuala Lumpur in this March 2, 2013 file photo. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
The coffin of Corporal Sabarudin Daud of Malaysian Police 69th Commando Battalion, who was killed in the standoff between Malaysian security forces and armed followers of the Sultanate of Sulu, is carried as the coffin of his colleague Zulkifli Mamat rests on a podium at an airport in Subang, outside Kuala Lumpur in this March 2, 2013 file photo. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
A Sulu gunmen who was shot dead, lies on the wooden planks after a shoot-out with soldiers in Simunul village on March 4, 2013. Malaysia vowed to beef up security in the eastern state where at least 26 people have been reported killed after a bizarre invasion by Philippine followers of a self-styled sultan. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
A villager pulls a sampan with the body of a dead gunmen that was killed on Saturday, for removal at Simunul village in Sabah's Semporna district on March 4, 2013. Gunmen have killed five policemen in Malaysia's Sabah state where members of an armed faction from the Philippines are staking an ancient claim to the remote corner of Borneo island and have been facing off with security forces. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
Filipino residents of the Malaysian state of Sabah arrive with their belongings at the port of Jolo, the capital of Sulu province in southern Philippines early Monday, March 4, 2013 after fleeing Lahad Datu district of Sabah. The brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram of the Sultanate of Sulu has occupied a Malaysian village in Lahad Datu with about 200 of its "Royal Army" followers since Feb 9. -- FILE PHOTO: AP
Malaysian soldiers man a security check point in Semporna, the new area where the stand-off with Sulu gunmen in Simunul village on the Malaysian island of Borneo on March 3, 2013. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
Filipino Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu, center, answers questions from reporters at his residence in suburban Taguig, south of Manila, Philippines on Sunday March 3, 2013. Gunmen ambushed and killed five Malaysian policemen as fears mounted that armed intruders from the southern Philippines had slipped into at least three coastal districts on Borneo island, officials said on Sunday. -- FILE PHOTO: AP
"The government has to take the right action in order to preserve the pride and sovereignty of this country."
The group, which arrived by boat about three weeks ago, say they are descendants of the sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, which ruled parts of northern Borneo for centuries.
They are demanding recognition and an increased payment from Malaysia for their claim as the rightful owners of Sabah.
Malaysia has refused their demands and along with the Philippine government had urged the group to return home.
The violence has sparked a political crisis ahead of elections for both the Philippine and Malaysian governments and raised concerns of instability in resource-rich Sabah state.