Malaysian Hunts for Philippine Muslim Fighters After Assault

Residents leave their village in Tanjung Labian near Tanduo, where Malaysia launched an assault with fighter jets bombing the stand-off village followed by a ground assault by troops on March 5, 2013. Source: AFP/Getty Images

Malaysian security forces searched door-to-door in the eastern state of Sabah after attacking an armed Muslim clan from the Philippines that invaded last month to reclaim territory it lost more than 100 years ago.

Police moved cautiously in an area slightly larger than New York City’s Central Park to find followers of Jamalul Kiram, a Filipino who asserts he’s the sultan of Sulu. Authorities have yet to release a death toll from yesterday’s aerial and ground attacks, which came after earlier clashes between Malaysian police and Kiram’s followers killed 31 people.

“As the intrusion prolonged, it was clear that the intruders had no intention to leave Sabah,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said yesterday. “The government must take action to defend the country’s dignity and sovereignty.”

The battle on Borneo Island erupted weeks before elections in both countries, with Najib facing a late-April deadline to dissolve parliament as his ruling coalition seeks to maintain a 55-year grip on power. It also comes as Philippine President Benigno Aquino aims to conclude a peace deal with a Muslim separatist group that Najib is helping to broker.

The Philippines and Malaysia will form a naval blockage to prevent more Filipinos heading to Sabah as reinforcements, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in an e-mailed statement. An exit channel should be created for woman and children caught in the fighting, it said.

‘Fruitful’ Attack. Malaysian security forces operating in Sabah’s Tanduo village are being cautious to avoid more bloodshed, state-run Bernama news agency reported, citing Inspector-General of Police Ismail Omar. Malaysia suffered no injuries, and casualties in Kiram’s group couldn’t be assessed, Bernama reported, citing Home Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein.

Three F-18 and five Hawk fighter aircraft were used in the attack, Bernama cited Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as saying.

Agbimuddin Kiram, the self-proclaimed crown prince of Sulu and brother of Jamalul, said in an interview with DZMM radio from Sabah that he couldn’t confirm casualties. About 180 members of the group, including 30 with weapons, invaded Sabah about three weeks ago.

“There will be no surrender,” Jamalul Kiram’s spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, said at a briefing in Manila yesterday, adding that the group’s followers fear for their lives.

Peace Deal. Eight Malaysian police officers and 23 Kiram loyalists have been killed in shootouts since March 1. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario held talks with his counterpart after arriving in Malaysia earlier this week, Najib’s spokesman, Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, said by phone. In a statement yesterday, Malaysia’s foreign ministry said it considered the group to be “terrorists.”

The Sulu sultanate, which dates back to the 14th century, says it leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Company in 1878, an agreement that Malaysia views as a secession of the region. Sabah fell under British control after World War II and joined Malaysia in 1963, shortly after the sultanate ceded sovereignty to the Philippines.

The incident comes several months after Najib’s government helped Aquino reach a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist group in the southern Philippines. The Moro National Liberation Front, a splinter rebel group, called the accord — which will expand the country’s autonomous Muslim region — a conspiracy between Aquino and Najib for Malaysia to retain sovereignty of Sabah.

‘Total Chaos’. “Any agreement will be problematic and will be questioned” because Sabah wasn’t included in the self-governing region, said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace Violence and Terrorism Research. “There will be consequences on the peace talks.”

Aquino risks putting the country in “total chaos” if he orders the arrest of Jamalul Kiram, said Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front.

“It’s unbecoming for a head of state to be siding with the enemy of his people,” Misuari said yesterday. “What kind of leader are you if you abandon your own people for the sake of his friendship with colonial troublemaker Malaysia?”

Aquino tried to solve the conflict peacefully by sending intermediaries and agreeing to study the legal basis of the Sulu sultanate’s territorial claims, Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said in a mobile-phone message.

“There’s only so much we can do if the Kirams insist on this course of action,” he wrote. “It defies logic.”

Copyright: BusinessWeek

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