KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia launched airstrikes and mortar attacks against nearly 200 Filipinos occupying a Borneo coastal village Tuesday to end a bizarre three-week siege that turned into a security nightmare for both Malaysia and the Philippines.
The assault follows firefights this past week that killed eight Malaysian police officers and 19 Filipino gunmen, some of whom were members of a Muslim clan that shocked Malaysia and the neighboring Philippines by slipping by boat past naval patrols last month and storming an obscure village on Borneo’s eastern Sabah state.
The crisis has sparked jitters about a spread of instability in Sabah, which is rich in timber and oil resources. Unknown numbers of other armed Filipinos are feared to have encroached on other districts in the area recently.
More than seven hours after fighter jets were deployed, Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said no injuries occurred among Malaysian police and military personnel who went in to raid houses near palm oil plantations there.
(READ MORE: In Malaysia, fear grips Borneo’s Filipino population)
“On the enemy’s side, we have to wait because the operation is ongoing. We have to be careful,” the minister said, refusing to elaborate on whether there were Filipino casualties or captives.
National police chief Ismail Omar said ground forces encountered resistance from gunmen firing at them. Police were slowly combing an area of about 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles) to look for the Filipinos, he said.
The clansmen, armed with rifles and grenade launchers, had refused to leave the area, staking a long-dormant claim to Malaysia’s entire state of Sabah, which they insisted was their ancestral birthright.
Prime Minister Najib Razak defended the offensive, saying Malaysia made every effort to resolve the siege peacefully since the presence of the group in Lahad Datu district became known on Feb. 12, including by holding talks to encourage the intruders to leave without facing any serious legal repercussions.
“For our sovereignty and stability, we will not allow even an inch of Malaysian territory to be threaten or taken by anyone,” Najib said.
The Filipinos who landed in Lahad Datu, a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, insisted Sabah belonged to their royal sultanate for more than a century. The group is led by a brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu.
(READ MORE: Philippines’ Sabah ghosts come back to haunt Aquino)
Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the Filipinos, told reporters in Manila that the group would not surrender and that their leader was safe.
Idjirani said he spoke by phone with Kiram’s brother, who saw jets dropping two bombs on a nearby village that the group had abandoned.
“They can hear the sounds of bombs and the exchange of fire,” Idjirani said. “The truth is they are nervous. Who will not be nervous when you are against all odds?”
He said they will “find a way to sneak to safety.”
“If this is the last stand that we could take to let the world know about our cause, then let it be,” Idjirani said, describing the assault as “overkill.”
Malaysian officials said they were taking no chances with public safety, sealing off areas within about 30 kilometers (20 miles) of the village and refusing to allow journalists past the road blocks.
The Philippine government had urged Malaysia to exercise maximum tolerance to avoid further bloodshed.
In Manila, presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said Tuesday that Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was in Kuala Lumpur meeting with his Malaysian counterpart.
“We’ve done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end, Kiram’s people chose this path,” Carandang said.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told the TV3 station that Malaysia regards the Filipino group as “terrorists” who have committed “atrocities and brutalities.” Officials were studying what laws could be invoked against them, Anifah said, adding that Manila should also take legal action against Kiram.
Some in Muslim-majority Malaysia had previously called for patience in handling the Lahad Datu group. But after the Filipinos fatally shot two Malaysia policemen in Lahad Datu on Friday and another six personnel were ambushed and killed by other Filipino assailants while inspecting a waterfront village in a separate district on Saturday, the Malaysian government declared the time for talk was over.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III went on national TV twice this past week to urge the Filipino group in Lahad Datu to lay down their arms, warning the situation could imperil about 800,000 Filipinos settlers in Sabah.
Some activists say border security and immigration policies must be revamped for Sabah, where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have headed in recent decades — many of them illegally — to seek work and stability.
Malaysia has repeatedly intensified naval patrols, but the long and porous sea border with the Philippines remains difficult to guard.
The crisis could have wide-ranging political ramifications in both countries. Some fear it might undermine peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
It might also affect the timing and voter sentiment for Malaysian general elections that must be held by the end of June. Najib requires strong support from voters in Sabah to fend off an opposition alliance that hopes to end more than five decades of federal rule by the National Front coalition.