MANILA, Philippines—Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario clarified that he did not label as terrorists armed followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III who are standing their ground in Sabah contrary to a Malaysian report Tuesday night.
In a statement, the DFA said Del Rosario, in meeting with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman in Kuala Lumpur, only concurred to call as “terroristic acts” reports that Malaysian police forces were mutilated in Semporna, where fighting between Kiram’s men and Malaysian forces earlier erupted.
Malaysian news outfits had quoted Aman as saying that Del Rosario agreed to call the Filipino fighters “terrorists” when the two met in before dawn Tuesday, just hours before Malaysia launched air and ground strikes to flush out Kiram’s followers bent at staying in the disputed territory.
Del Rosario returned to Manila late Tuesday afternoon from his brief visit to Kuala Lumpur, where he hoped “to walk that last mile to try to save lives in this unfortunate conflict.”
Quoting the account of Philippine Ambassador Eduardo Malaya who was present at meeting, the DFA said: “…[T]he report is out of context and the Secretary did not label the Filipino group as terrorist.”
“In Semporna, there were alleged acts of terrorism. As reported by the Malaysian Foreign Minister, after the police forces were lured into an ambush and killed, their bodies were brutally mutilated and desecrated. If indeed these atrocities were committed as reported to him, the Secretary and the Foreign Minister both agreed that these were, at the very least, terroristic acts,” the DFA statement read.
In a statement sent early Wednesday, the DFA said the Philippines is still pursuing efforts to prevent further deaths in Lahad Datu, where Kiram’s followers have been standing their ground for three weeks now.
Kiram’s group is asserting ownership of the land even as the Philippine government refused to discuss the dispute while the Sultan’s followers remain in Sabah.
The DFA has repeatedly said government has “not abandoned” the country’s claim for Sabah and that a study group has been assembled to look into the Philippine claim.
“The Philippine Government will continue to explore all possible channels in an effort to achieve the objective of minimizing the loss of life and bringing the matter to an expeditious conclusion,” said the DFA.
The foreign office explained that the Philippines had wanted to peacefully settle the standoff peacefully but did not get the Kiram group’s cooperation.
President Aquino, who turned stern on the Kirams on the second week of the standoff, “initially offered that no charges would be filed” against them if they cooperated. The situation, however, changed when the Kirams refused to budge.
“From the outset of this conflict, the Philippine Government has been pursuing options which could lead to a peaceful resolution where no lives would be lost… These options, which involve the peaceful withdrawal of the Kiram group from Lahad Datu in order to ensure that lives are not compromised, were relentlessly pursued on a 24/7 basis,” the DFA said.
“Unfortunately, some of these plans did not merit acceptance by all parties and those that did could not be implemented in time. The Philippine Government’s constructive efforts were overtaken by events that were beyond its control,” the foreign office added.