KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — 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 Tuesday’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 in an emailed statement Tuesday. “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.
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 Tuesday, and casualties in Kiram’s group couldn’t be assessed, Bernama reported separately, citing Home Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein.
Three F-18 and five Hawk fighter aircraft were used in the attack, which “has been fruitful,” Bernama quoted 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 in a televised briefing in Manila, adding that the group’s followers fear for their lives.
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 late Monday, Najib’s spokesman, Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, said by phone.
In a statement Tuesday, 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 — that will expand the country’s autonomous Muslim region — a conspiracy between Aquino and Najib for Malaysia to retain sovereignty of Sabah.
“Any agreement will be problematic and will be questioned” because Sabah wasn’t included in the self-governing region, Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace Violence and Terrorism Research, said by phone. “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. “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.”
Aquino Monday accused allies of former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo of involvement in the incident, saying that “certain members of the past administration” assisted Jamalul Kiram, who ran for a Senate seat in 2007 elections under Arroyo’s party. Elena Horn, a spokeswoman for Arroyo, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
“We came to Malaysia to endeavor to walk that last mile to try to save lives in this unfortunate conflict,” del Rosario said in a statement issued by his department’s spokesman Tuesday. “We intend to fully continue this effort.”
The Philippines will hold elections for its 285-member House of Representatives and half of its 24 Senate seats on May 13. Mindanao has 11.4 million voters, making up a quarter of the nation’s total, according to government data.
The U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur issued an advisory urging citizens to avoid visiting the eastern coastal regions of Sabah, which provide access to nearby islands including Sipadan, a popular diving site.
Developments in Sabah aren’t significant enough to affect the supply-demand balance in the palm oil industry, Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Bernard Dompok said at a conference in Kuala Lumpur. Palm oil for May delivery traded 0.4 percent lower at 2,404 ringgit ($775) a ton on Bursa Malaysia Derivatives at 3:33 p.m. in Kuala Lumpur.
Najib must dissolve parliament by April 28 and hold elections within 60 days. His government called for unity Monday after Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition alliance accused him of “weak leadership” in handling the conflict.
The outcome will raise questions about the government’s ability to defend Malaysia, according to Joseph Chinyong Liow, associate dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“Malaysians will want to know how on earth this large a number of people got into Malaysian soil and gained a foothold,” he said by phone. “The followers of the Sulu sultan are prepared to fight to the end. That sets the whole thing up for a pretty gruesome outcome.”
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