KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s government said yesterday that its security forces have surrounded dozens of suspected Philippine militants in a remote area with a history of incursions by armed Filipino Islamic groups.
About 80 to 100 gunmen had been cornered in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.
He said security forces were negotiating with the men near the small coastal town of Lahad Datu.
“We know the situation is still under control. I confirm that no Malaysian citizens, to my knowledge, are being held hostage or for ransom,” Hishammuddin said.
“Security forces are still in control and negotiating with them, some of whom are armed.”
He declined to confirm that the gunmen were from the adjacent southern Philippines.
But asked whether Philippine authorities were involved in negotiations, Hishammuddin said: “Of course they will have to be involved in the operations.”
National police chief Ismail Omar had said in a statement late Wednesday that “the intrusion is a result of the problems in the southern Philippines.”
That was an apparent reference to Muslim militants and other lawlessness in the southern Philippines, which lies just across the Sulu Sea from Sabah.
Malaysia is predominantly Muslim.
Earlier Thursday Prime Minister Najib Razak was quoted by The Star newspaper as saying police were negotiating with the gunmen “to get the group to leave peacefully to prevent bloodshed.”
“We have surrounded the area and our police and armed forces have the ability to handle the matter,” he was quoted as saying.
The Star’s report added that a tight security ring including army and naval forces had been thrown around the “heavily armed” group.
Wednesday’s statement by Ismail had said the men had surrendered when ordered and the situation was defused. The government has not yet explained the about-face.
A Philippine military official told AFP that Manila did not rule out the possibility that the men could be members of the Abu Sayyaf.
The small gang of self-styled Islamic militants has carried out previous raids into Malaysian waters.
In 2000, Abu Sayyaf guerrillas seized 21 mostly Western holidaymakers as hostages at the Malaysian scuba diving resort of Sipadan near Lahad Datu, taking them off to Philippine islands. They were later ransomed.
“We have received similar reports but we cannot confirm, nor rule out, whether they are members of the ASG (Abu Sayyaf group),” said Philippine southern command military chief Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo.
“Other lawless elements as well as (Filipino) pirates are also known to stray into Malaysian waters,” he added.
Security on Sabah’s coast has been a problem for Malaysia, with tens of thousands of Filipinos believed to have migrated illegally to the state over the past few decades and people moving freely across the maritime border.
Two Malaysians were kidnapped from a plantation in the area in November and were believed to have been taken to the southern Philippines.
A government security official yesterday confirmed the landing of dozens of Filipinos in Sabah, Malaysia supposedly lured by the group of Sultan Kiram, who is claiming the island territory, but denied they were armed as reported.
The official, who requested not to be identified, said that while Filipinos come and go in Sabah, the arrival of the group of Sultan Kiram drew attention after they held a meeting supposedly tackling how to continue the claim over Sabah.
“There were no armed men…this group (of Sultan Kiram) is claiming Sabah and is being paid by Malaysia but the compensation is low. They held meetings on how to continue the claim over Sabah then they have followers who are told ‘if you join us, you will have lots in Sabah,’” the source said.
The source said that the group of Filipinos, whom he failed to estimate in numbers, landed in Sabah five days ago.
“The group of Sultan Kiram regularly goes to Sabah, they sell goods…this (latest arrival) became controversial because they called the meeting and announced ‘whoever will join to Sabah, I will give them lots’, that’s why many attended the meeting but they have no firearms,” the official explained.
The official said that the confirmation came from their sources in Simunol and Sitangkai in Tawi-Tawi and even in Sabah. It was not clear, however, whether the group came from the same areas.
“We have people there in Sabah and in Simunol and Sitangkai islands which are nearest to (Sabah),” the official said. Mario J. Mallari with AFP