KUALA LUMPUR—“They are alive and kicking,” so claimed the spokesman of the Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III after Malaysia launched air strikes and mortar attacks on Tuesday against nearly 200 Filipinos occupying a Borneo coastal village.
Jets pounded the area in eastern Sabah state for more than 30 minutes before hundreds of ground troops moved in to search for the Filipino armed men believed to be hiding near a coastal palm oil plantation in Lahad Datu, according to Malaysian officials.
Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the Filipinos, said he spoke by phone with Kiram’s brother, Agbimuddin Kiram, who saw jets dropping two bombs on a nearby village that the group had abandoned.
“They could 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 the sultan’s followers would “find a way to sneak to safety.”
“If this is the last stand that we can take to let the world know about our cause, then let it be,” Idjirani said, describing the assault as “overkill.”
Idjirani said that Agbimuddin and his men were “alive and kicking” in Lahad Datu. “The bombs dropped fell on Malaysian forces,” Idjirani said.
Earlier Malaysia’s national police chief Ismail Omar had also raised doubts about the success of the air and ground attack, saying “mopping up” operations had yet to find any bodies and suggesting at least some of the militants might have slipped away. The three-week-old standoff has killed eight Malaysian police officers and 19 Filipino armed men.
Omar said Malaysian ground forces encountered resistance from armed men firing at them, according to the Associated Press.
Relatives in Manila said that the Filipinos in Sabah told them by phone that they survived the bombardment.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government had no choice but to quell Malaysia’s worst security crisis in years, sparked when Filipino militants invaded to claim the Malaysian state of Sabah for the Philippine sultan.
“The longer this invasion lasts, it is clear to the authorities that the invaders do not intend to leave Sabah,” Najib said, adding that negotiations had gone nowhere. “The government must take action to safeguard the dignity and sovereignty of the country as required by the people.”
The Filipinos have been holed up in the village of Tanduao since they landed by boat on Feb. 9 from Sulu in a bizarre incursion that has exposed Malaysian security lapses.
At least two fighter jets roared over the standoff site from early morning, launching an air bombardment, a Malaysian reporter positioned about 20 kilometers away told Agence France-Presse (AFP) by phone.
“There was a series of explosions in Tanduao. Intense bombing lasted for about half an hour,” followed by a series of sporadic blasts, he said, asking not to be named.
An AFP reporter at a police roadblock about 30 km from the assault saw heavy military helicopters flying toward Tanduao. Six ambulances also were seen speeding toward the site.
Three military trucks filled with dozens of soldiers also moved in the direction of Tanduao, located amid vast oil palm plantations.
More than seven hours after fighter jets were deployed, Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said no injuries occurred among Malaysian police and military personnel who went in to raid houses near palm oil plantations there.
“On the enemy’s side, we have to wait because the operation is ongoing. We have to be careful,” the minister said, refusing to elaborate on whether there were Filipino casualties or captives.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was in Kuala Lumpur meeting with his counterpart to discuss a peaceful resolution of the standoff when news of the early morning raid broke out.
On his return Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. from talks with Malaysian defense and home ministers, Del Rosario told reporters: “We did everything, we walked the last mile. We intend to fully continue this effort.”
Palace plea: ‘Go home’
Briefing reporters on the Kuala Lumpur mission, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said in Manila that Del Rosario had requested that Malaysia establish a “safe corridor for women and children and other civilians not involved in the conflict” and allow a Philippine Navy vessel in the area to conduct a humanitarian mission.
Del Rosario was to proceed to Malacañang to report to President Aquino on his two-day trip.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Aquino was aware of the Malaysian assault on the Filipino’s position in Lahad Datu. He said Aquino’s message to the Filipinos in Sabah has not changed from Day 1: “Go home.”
“I think everyone knows that we have done everything possible, and we continue to do everything possible to peacefully end this standoff. Unfortunately, the position taken by the Kiram family is a position that leads down to violence,” Lacierda said.
“For three weeks, our government has been saying, ‘let’s talk after you go back.’ They refused,” Lacierda said.
So the President deemed it wise to talk with Najib on Saturday morning, appealing for the safety of the 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah, he said.
Lacierda said the Philippine government was not only worried about the security implications of armed hostilities in Lahad Datu, but the effects on some 800,000 Filipinos suddenly returning to the Sulu archipelago.
“If they suddenly go back to the Philippines, it will be a peace and order problem. You can’t create jobs for 800,000 in the course of one day,” Lacierda said.
In a statement read by his daughter on Tuesday in Manila, Kiram said his followers who landed in Sabah to assert his claim over the Malaysian state on Bornia island “will fight to the last man protecting their ideals and aspirations.”
Kiram said the Aquino administration had so far showed an “insensitive attitude toward the sultanate of Sulu and the Muslim sentiments as if we are not Filipinos.”
“Please do not disrespect the integrity of their intentions. Mr. President, you cannot wash your hands and turn your back on your own people,” he said in the message read by Princess Jacel Kiram at their home in Taguig City.
The clansmen, armed with rifles and grenade launchers, had refused to leave the area, staking a long-dormant claim to Malaysia’s entire state of Sabah, which they insisted was their ancestral birthright.
Idjirani told reporters in Manila that the group would not surrender and that their leader was safe.
In Zamboanga City, Habib Hashim Mudjahab, an official of the Moro National Liberation Front, told reporters that Tausugs from Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi had sailed to Sabah to reinforce the besieged Filipinos there.
“We can no longer prevent our people. We are hurt and many of our people, even the noncombatants, are going to Sabah to help the sultanate,” Mudjahab said.
But Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo, chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, said his troops had not monitored movements to Sabah. “But we cannot avoid that some residents who have relatives in Malaysia would react to the situation,” he said.
Acting Gov. Mujib Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said at least 70 Filipinos arrived in Sibutu, Tawi-Tawi, on Tuesday to escape being caught in the crossfire in Sabah. “They boarded a commercial vessel and they arrived this morning,” Hataman said.—With reports from AP; AFP; Reuters; Michael Lim Ubac, Nikko Dizon, Jerome Aning and Tarra Quismundo in Manila; and Julie S. Alipala and Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao