Veteran Philippine fighters head to Malaysia: MNLF
MANILA (AFP) - Battle-hardened Muslim guerrillas have sailed from the Philippines to reinforce followers of a self-proclaimed Filipino sultan who are battling Malaysian forces, one of their leaders said on Wednesday.
The fighters are veteran members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who waged a decades-long insurgency against the Philippine government before signing a 1996 peace pact, Muhajab Hashim told AFP.
"Many have slipped through the security forces. They know the area like the back of their hands because they trained there in the past," Mr Hashim told AFP.
"We are expecting more of them to join (the fighting) even if our official instruction is for them to refrain from going."
He could not say how many MNLF fighters had managed to slip through naval cordons set up by the Philippines and Malaysia, but said "thousands" had earlier expressed interest in joining.
Mr Hashim is chairman of the MNLF's Islamic Command Council overseeing all the group's armed forces, which was meant to disarm as part of the 1996 peace pact but never fully complied.
He said that although MNLF leaders had not officially instructed their men to sail to Malaysia, they fully supported the sultan's efforts to reclaim the Malaysian state of Sabah as his territory.
"MNLF fighters are adherents of the sultan, we are followers. So there is more than an alliance," he said. "We feel very strongly against the attacks against our brothers from Sulu."
Malaysian security forces launched a major offensive on Tuesday to end a three-week standoff between followers of Jamalul Kiram III, the self-proclaimed sultan of Sulu, that has left at least 27 people dead.
However, the sultan's aides said in Manila that the militants, believed to originally number between 100 and 300, had escaped Tuesday's attacks.
The MNLF was founded by radical Muslim scholar Nur Misuari to fight for a Muslim homeland in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao in the late 1960s, and had once received support from Malaysia.