KUALA LUMPUR–Malaysia’s government said Thursday its security forces have surrounded dozens of Filipino gunmen in a remote area of Borneo island, and a report said the group is demanding the right to stay.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters about 80 to 100 gunmen apparently belonging to the “royal army” of the Sultanate of Sulu had been cornered by security forces near the small coastal town of Lahad Datu in Sabah.
He said security forces were in control and negotiating with the group, some of whom were armed.
The area was once controlled by the former Islamic Sultanate of Sulu and has a history of incursions by armed Filipino Muslim groups.
Malaysia’s national police chief Ismail Omar was quoted as saying the militants had declared themselves followers of “a descendant of the Sultan of Sulu.”
Ismail, quoted on the website of The Star newspaper, said the group demanded to be recognized as the “Royal Sulu Sultanate Army” and insisted that as subjects of the sultanate, they should be allowed to remain in Sabah.
“They have made known their demands while we have told them that they need to leave the country,” the police chief was quoted as saying, adding that negotiations with the group were still under way.
The report did not elaborate.
Earlier Thursday Prime Minister Najib Razak was quoted by The Star as saying police were negotiating with the gunmen “to get the group to leave peacefully to prevent bloodshed”.
The report said a tight security ring including Malaysian army and naval forces had been drawn around the “heavily armed” group.
The Sulu sultanate, first founded in the 1400s, was once a regional power center, controlling islands in the Muslim southern Philippines and parts of Borneo including Sabah until its demise a century ago.
Much of the eastern part of Sabah is being claimed by the Philippines as part of the Sultanate of Sulu that was leased to the British North Borneo Company in 1878. Great Britain transferred Sabah to Malaysia in 1963, which according to the Sultanate of Sulu was a violation of the Sabah Lease of 1878.
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 from the adjacent southern Philippines.
People continue to move freely across the maritime border from Mindanao, which has been racked for decades by Islamic separatist insurgencies and other lawlessness.
In 2000, guerrillas of the Islamic militant Abu Sayyaf movement seized 21 mostly Western holidaymakers as hostages at the Malaysian scuba diving resort of Sipadan near Lahad Datu.
The hostages were taken to Philippine islands and later ransomed.
Mainly Muslim Malaysia hosted long-running talks between Manila and the southern Philippines’ main Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, that resulted in a framework agreement last year aimed at ending their insurgency.
Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez has said Manila was in touch with Malaysia over the case. With INQUIRER.net
Originally posted at 11:41 pm | Thursday, February 14, 2013