KUALA LUMPUR—Malaysia on Monday sent hundreds of military troops to Sabah to help police neutralize armed followers of the sultan of Sulu who have killed eight police officers in the country’s bloodiest security crisis.
Twenty-seven people have reportedly been killed since fighting between the followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III began in Tanduao village in Lahad Datu town on March 1.
Of the dead, 19 were followers of the sultan who were killed in skirmishes with police that shocked Malaysians unaccustomed to such violence in their country.
The main group of the sultan’s followers comprising 200-odd men and women, including about 30 who are armed, is cornered by Malaysian security forces in a small area in Tanduao, where they landed on
Feb. 9 after crossing by sea from Tawi-Tawi in southern Philippines to stake the sultanate’s claim to Sabah.
It is Malaysia’s worst security breach in years and Prime Minister Najib Razak has authorized an investigation into reports that the political opposition is involved.
A similar investigation is going on in the Philippines, where the administration of President Aquino sees a conspiracy involving opponents of a peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that is in the final stages after the signing of a preliminary agreement last October.
Najib, who has vowed to root out the intruders, authorized a “doubling” of police and armed forces deployed in Sabah.
“An additional two Army battalions have been dispatched to Sabah,” Najib was quoted as saying by state news agency Bernama.
Public attention focused on Monday on how to minimize casualties while apprehending the Sulu sultan’s followers surrounded by Malaysian security forces as well as an undetermined number of other armed Filipinos suspected to be in two other districts of Sabah within 300 kilometers of Lahad Datu.
Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib said Army reinforcements from other states in Malaysia would help bolster public confidence by patrolling various parts of the state’s eastern seaboard.
“The situation is under control now,” Hamza said. “There will be cooperation” between the military and the police, he said.
Hamza declined to elaborate on specific strategies or on a call by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for lethal action.
“There is no way out other than launching a counterattack to eliminate” the intruders, Bernama quoted Mahathir as saying on Sunday. “Although many of them will be killed, this cannot be avoided because they had attacked Sabah, and not the other way around.”
Najib declared over the weekend that security forces were authorized to “take any action deemed necessary.”
The intruders, led by the Sulu sultan’s brother Agbimuddin, have rebuffed calls for them to leave, saying ownership documents from the late 1800s prove the territory is theirs.
It remains unclear whether the armed Filipinos who ambushed a police team in Semporna town on Saturday night are part of the Lahad Datu group.
The clash in Semporna, where five Malaysian policemen and two intruders were killed, and a police claim that they were pursuing yet another group of armed men in a nearby town has sparked fears of further infiltration by Filipinos from Sulu.
The exact identities of the armed men remains a mystery, but Malaysia’s military chief, Zulkifeli Zin, told a press conference in Sabah on Sunday that the intruders appeared to have combat experience.
Their “insurgency guerrilla technique is quite good,” he was quoted as saying.
Zulkifeli said Malaysia’s military and the police were adopting a cautious approach in their plan to resolve the standoff with Agbimuddin’s group in Tanduao.
He noted that Agbimuddin’s group had planned their location around the village in such a way that they would inflict casualties if Malaysian security forces enter the area.
“They are at the center and have people spread out, including snipers,” Zulkifeli said.
“They know we will suffer casualties if we go in as the area is open,” he said.
“They are under close surveillance by our special forces,” Zulkifeli said.
But he added that while Malaysia was determined to “bring this episode to a close” as soon as possible, any action would take a little more time.