LAHAD DATU, Sabah—Malaysian troops were scouring an area 4 square kilometers at Tanduao village here for armed followers of the sultan of Sulu who were routed in an air and ground assault 12 hours earlier and fled to the jungles of Sabah.
Air strikes and heavy artillery fire on Tuesday flushed out the armed group led by Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III, after a 23-day standoff in Tanduao village here.
Malaysian Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the bodies of 13 men from Agbimuddin’s group were recovered after Tuesday’s air strikes and artillery attack, bringing to 40 the number of people killed in the Sabah fighting.
Speaking at a news conference, Ahmad said the bodies were found in hastily dug graves near ground zero in Tanduao by security forces conducting mopping up operations on Wednesday.
Ahmad said the government believed the fleeing Sulu group had dug the graves in the aftermath of the offensive, which has been named “Ops Daulat” (Operation Sovereignty).
Eight Malaysian policemen were among the 40 people killed since violence erupted in the Tanduao standoff on March 1.
According to Kiram, four police officials were captured by his group during an attack on a police station in Semporna town on Saturday night, but reports about that incident identified the attackers as local supporters of the sultanate identified with Alianapia Kiram, brother of Jamalul, not the group led by Agbimuddin, which at the time was believed pinned down by police forces in the village of Tanduao in Lahad Datu town.
Jamalul said on Wednesday that his brother was alive and unhurt despite the assault launched by Malaysian forces on Tuesday.
The sultan said he managed to get in touch with Agbimuddin on Wednesday morning.
“They are doing OK. He said they were able to eat well despite being pursued. What can they do but fight back?” Jamalul told reporters in Manila.
“Bombs were dropped on them but with God’s mercy the bombs did not explode on them but on the Malaysian side,” he added.
In Lahad Datu, the Malaysian chief of police, Inspector General Ismail Omar, said on Wednesday there were “zero casualties” among the Malaysian security forces but he believed there were still “enemies” in the area.
“We hope they have not escaped,” Ismail said when asked about media reports from Manila quoting the Kiram family as saying Agbimuddin was alive.
The assault on Agbimuddin’s group, whose claimed number varied between 100 and 200, began at 7 a.m. on Tuesday.
Five F/A-18 Hornet and three Hawk 208 fighter jets dropped laser-guided bombs after which artillery bombardment took place to dislodge Agbimuddin’s group pinned down in a small area in Tanduao village after a fire fight with Malaysian police on March 1.
The Sulu group fled toward the jungle, chased by hundreds of Malaysian troops.
Police said there was sporadic fighting between the two groups on Wednesday and there were reports of one fighter from Agbimuddin’s group being killed.
Asked about the possibility of some of Agbimuddin’s men slipping through the security cordon around Lahad Datu, Ismail said, “I hope not.”
“I have ordered the commanders on the ground to be cautious. I do not want police or military casualties,” he said.
In Manila, Jamalul said Muslim Filipinos from Mindanao were going to Sabah to support his brother and his men who were under assault by Malaysian security forces.
Jamalul said, however, that it was not he who called for reinforcements for Agbimuddin’s group.
“They might accuse me of giving the order. You cannot blame the people for going there to help my brother. I cannot blame them,” Jamalul said.
Reports said battle-hardened Muslim guerrillas had sailed from Mindanao to reinforce Agbimuddin’s group.
It is not clear when the guerrillas left for Sabah, but the reports said the fighters were veteran members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which waged a decades-long insurgency against the government before signing a peace agreement with the administration of President Fidel Ramos in 1996.
The Philippine and Malaysian navies have thrown a joint blockade off Lahad Datu to prevent more forces from entering Sabah to support Agbimuddin.
There were reports that a force of 10,000 fighters from Mindanao have departed for Sabah, but Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Raul Hernandez had no information to either confirm or deny those reports.
Hernandez said Philippine and Malaysian naval forces were closely guarding the border to prevent fresh groups from entering Sabah.
“From the Navy’s side, there are a number of ships there and they are monitoring the area jointly with the Malaysian Navy to make sure that some of the supporters of the group of Kiram will not make the situation worse,” Hernandez said.
But a spokesman for the MNLF, Muhajab Mashim, said on Wednesday that “[m]any had slipped through the security forces. They know the area like the back of their hands because they trained there in the past.”
“We are expecting more of them to join (the fighting) even if our official instruction is for them to refrain from going,” Hashim said.
He could not say how many MNLF fighters had managed to slip through naval cordons set up by the Philippines and Malaysia, but said “thousands” had earlier expressed interest in joining.
Hashim said that although MNLF leaders had not officially instructed their men to sail to Sabah, they fully supported the sultan’s efforts to reclaim the Malaysian state.
“MNLF fighters are adherents of the sultan, we are followers. So there is more than an alliance,” he said. “We feel very strongly against the attacks against our brothers from Sulu.”
Jamalul said he did not know whether his followers who were going to Sabah were armed.
He said his followers who styled themselves as the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” were not MNLF or Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters.
“(Fighters of) the MNLF, MILF might be going there, we cannot stop them. But to us, they cannot bring the name of the Moro National Liberation Front or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front,” he said.
Not asked for help
Jamalul said he did not ask for support from the MNLF, whose chairman, Nur Misuari, visited him on Tuesday.
“If they would help, that’s OK. Their help is welcome. [Misuari] just came to me as a visitor. We just met at the door,” he said.—Reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan and Tarra Quismundo in Manila; Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao; AP, AFP, Reuters and The Star/Asia News Network