ZAMBOANGA CITY - Some 67 followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III were intercepted Tuesday as they were about to leave the country to reinforce their comrades holed up in Lahad Datu, Sabah, a police official said.
The group was intercepted in the municipality of Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi, said Provincial Police Director Joselito Salido, adding the followers returned to their respective provinces after they were convinced to return home.
The men came from the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, said Salido.
The Philippine Government has tightened the watch in the country’s southern border to prevent followers of the Sultanate of Sulu from reinforcing their comrades in Sabah, who have been in a standoff with Malaysian forces.
The standoff started after about 180 members of the Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu led by Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sultan Jamalul, landed on February 12 in Lahad Datu to stake a claim to Sabah.
The clansmen, armed with rifles and grenade launchers, defied stern warning from the Malaysian authorities to leave, as they insist Sabah is their ancestral birthright. This prompted the Malaysian police and military to launch an assault, triggering hostilities the past few days.
The crisis has also sparked worries of a spread of instability in Sabah, which is rich in timber and oil resources. Other armed Filipinos are feared to have slipped into other districts in the area recently.
On Tuesday, Malaysia unleashed airstrikes and mortar attacks on nearly 200 Filipinos occupying Lahad Datu but could not declare an immediate end to a three-week siege.
As of this posting, eight Malaysia police officers and 19 Filipino gunmen have been killed since Friday’s clash.
Malaysia National Police Chief Ismail Omar said police and military personnel were still hunting for Filipinos in the area Tuesday.
"We believe there are still enemies in the area," Ismail said. He said authorities "hope they have not escaped," but refused to provide details about any captives or casualties.
Ismail said the ground forces encountered resistance from gunmen firing at them, but Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said no injuries occurred among Malaysian police or military personnel.
Prime Minister Najib Razak defended the offensive, saying Malaysia had made every effort to resolve the siege peacefully since the group's presence in Lahad Datu district became known on February 12, including holding talks to encourage them 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 threatened or taken by anyone," Najib said.
But Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the Kiram clan, told reporters in Manila on Tuesday that the group would not surrender and that their leader, Raja Muda Kiram, was safe.
Idjirani said he spoke by phone with Raja Muda, 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."
He admitted in a television interview Tuesday that Malaysian security forces deployed in a town in Sabah can easily neutralize Kiram’s followers, but stressed: "If this is the last stand that we could take to let the world know about our cause, then let it be.”
He described the assault as "overkill."
"Wala na tayong magawa because so many times we appealed to them (Malaysia) na pag-usapan. Kung hindi mapakiusapan, let the divine intervention judge whether kung ang ginagawa natin ay nagsasabi tayo ng totoo o hindi. In the case of the (Aquino) government, their refusal to talk with us is now a sign that this is the kind of national policy they are adopting towards the issue," he added.
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 in.
But the Philippines had urged Malaysia to exercise maximum tolerance to avoid further bloodshed.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Tuesday requested the Malaysian Government to establish a "safety corridor" to allow evacuation of innocent Filipinos caught in the violence in Lahad Datu.
Raul Hernandez, Foreign Affairs spokesman, said in a press briefing Tuesday that Secretary Albert del Rosario has asked Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman to ensure the safety of women, children and other civilians in Sabah.
He said Malaysia has yet to respond to the request, adding it is still under consideration."
According to Hernandez, the Foreign Affairs chief returned to the country from Malaysia on Tuesday afternoon and vowed to continue his effort of talking to Malaysian authorities to "save lives."
"The reason why the secretary went to Malaysia is to personally convey the wish of the Philippine Government that Malaysian forces exercise maximum tolerance…for the ship to dock in Lahad Datu and enable the wounded to be treated by the medical personnel onboard," the DFA spokesman said.
BRP Tagbanua, which is still currently in Sibutu Island in Tawi-Tawi, is waiting for further instructions from the Philippine and Malaysian authorities.
Hernandez said the humanitarian ship is ready to proceed to the border once Malaysia allows it to have access to the Filipinos.
The humanitarian ship was dispatched from Tawi-Tawi more than a week ago to fetch women and civilians in Lahad Datu.
Two more vessels of the Philippine Coast Guard have been prepared in Zamboanga City to assist Filipinos in Sabah who would need evacuation.
Not abandoning Sabah claims
Hernandez also clarified Tuesday that the Philippines has not abandoned its claims territorial over Sabah.
"We have not abandoned our claims in Sabah. President mandated the DFA and the DOJ (Department of Justice) to study on how to consider this issue and move it," he said when asked about Manila's official position on the Sabah claims.
He said President Benigno Aquino III was very "clear" in his statements when he said that "he is willing to sit down with them [Kiram's group] on how to solve this issue, how to move it forward and how to address the grievances."
He said both the DFA and DOJ will have to come up with recommendations and other inputs "as soon as possible." (With AP/CVB/Emmanuel Louis Bacani/Sunnex)
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