KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian security forces scouring rugged terrain in Borneo on Wednesday briefly battled armed Filipino intruders who were on the run after being bombarded with airstrikes and mortar fire, police said. One Filipino was shot and believed killed.
The capture of nearly 200 members of a Philippine Muslim clan would ease public nervousness in Malaysia’s resource-rich eastern state of Sabah, which has been shaken in the past week by the killing of eight police officers and 19 Filipino gunmen who slipped into neighboring Malaysia.
Malaysian soldiers and police on Tuesday attacked the area that the Filipinos have occupied for three weeks in an extraordinary siege intended to highlight their territorial claim to the entire state of Sabah, which the Filipinos insist is their ancestral birthright.
More than 24 hours after the assault codenamed “Operation Sovereign” was launched, Malaysia’s national police chief Ismail Omar said the main encounter was an exchange of gunfire in the hilly coastal district that’s thick with foliage slightly after dawn on Wednesday.
Malaysian forces shot and possibly killed one of the clansmen, who appear to be trying to escape the area, Ismail said.
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“We’re in a good position. We ask the public not to panic,” Ismail said, adding that authorities would expand their search area beyond the current 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles).
Relatives of the Filipino group’s leader in Manila said he had informed them by telephone that he and his followers remain unhurt.
“Bombs were dropped, but they are still safe,” said Jacel Kiram, daughter of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu.
Commenting on Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman’s announcement this week that the group was being formally considered terrorists, Kiram said, “Malaysia wants us dead, and all we want is to talk.” The group in Malaysia is led by a brother of the sultan.
Malaysia had repeatedly urged the Filipinos to leave peacefully after they slipped past naval patrols last month and scared away villagers in an obscure part of Sabah’s eastern seaboard.
The Filipinos refused to leave, insisting that Sabah, a state rich with timber and oil, had once belonged to their royal sultanate for more than a century and should be handed back.
Fighter jets and group forces attacked the area after the Filipinos fatally shot two Malaysia policemen last week. Six other police officers were ambushed and killed by other Filipino assailants believed to be linked to the clansmen at a waterfront village in another Sabah district on Saturday.
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Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario met his Malaysian counterpart this week and “pursued the possibility of allowing for an unconditional surrender of the group to avert further loss of lives and allow them to return to their respective homes and families,” according to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday.
Malaysian government officials have said the Filipinos must be prosecuted either in Malaysia or the Philippines for crimes such as murder.
The crisis has triggered fears that violence could spread in Sabah, a short boat ride from Muslim-majority southern Philippine provinces wracked by a decades-old insurgency. Sabah is also home to an estimated 800,000 Filipino settlers who’ve traveled here over the years to seek work and stability.
Activists have called for tougher border security and immigration policies in Sabah, presenting a major political challenge to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition, which faces general elections that must be held by the end of June.
Some fear the crisis will also complicate peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.