KOTA KINABALU (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Security forces in Sabah are on high alert over a potential retaliation from the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf group after five of its members were gunned down by the police in a shoot-out there.
The Sabah police have issued a red alert as they fear the killings at a mangrove swamp squatter colony in the south-western Beaufort district about 90km from state capital Kota Kinabalu on Monday morning (May 17) could spark retaliation from remnant terrorists or sympathisers.
Those killed were notorious Abu Sayyaf sub-commander Mabar Binda and foot soldiers Jurakhdam Binda, Alsimar Sukarno and Abhirham Samsula @ Samsed. A fifth suspect has yet to be identified and is believed to have acted as a transporter and food provider.
The shoot-out came barely a week after Mabar escaped a police swoop, which saw the arrests of eight members of the cell including his brother Muayyar and another sub-commander, Sansibar Besion.
The Binda brothers and Sansibar are wanted by the Filipino authorities for a spate of murders and kidnappings, and are described as "ruthless".
They have been involved in clashes with the Philippines military over the past decade that saw them beheading a Filipino marine soldier, as well as killing a kidnapped Dutch national in May 2019.
It is believed that the group began to slip into Sabah late last year by sending their families there first as the Philippine military pursued them at their home base of Jolo.
The Abu Sayyaf gunmen were believed to have entered Sabah earlier this year and joined their families in Beaufort.
State Police Commissioner Hazani Ghazali said they believed the group and those arrested were not linked to any kidnap for ransom crimes in Sabah.
"We are still investigating any possible criminal involvements in Sabah and will forward the investigation papers to the Attorney-General for further action.
"They could also be sent back as illegal immigrants," he said.
On the shooting incident, Commissioner Hazani said the 11.27am shoot-out happened when the Abu Sayyaf gunmen started to fire at the police team who moved into their hideout at the swamp near Taman Sri Arjuna, about 100km from the state capital.
"Our men had to return fire due to safety reasons," he said, adding that two Colt. 45 pistols and three machetes were among the weapons seized.
In an earlier operation last week, 37 people, including eight Abu Sayyaf members, were nabbed in the same area.
Commissioner Hazani said the squatter colony set up by these suspects would be demolished after the necessary investigations were completed.
Asked how these terrorists had managed to slip into Sabah and choose Beaufort as their refuge ground, he said the police were still investigating but believed they had entered Sabah waters using pump boats with the help of sources and sympathisers.
State police are working with district policemen and security officials to check if there are any other such groups in Sabah, he added.
Commissioner Hazani warned the public, especially sympathisers, to refrain from giving help to any suspicious illegal immigrants or suspected Abu Sayyaf members.
"Alert the police immediately if there are any suspicious people in the area," he said.