Kuala Lumpur on Thursday rejected a ceasefire offer by the sultan of Sulu despite a call from the United Nations for an end to the violence in Sabah that has already cost 60 lives and talks among the parties involved to peacefully settle the dispute over the ownership of the eastern Malaysian state.
Malaysian national police chief Ismail Omar said 32 more followers of Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III were killed in two confrontations on Wednesday, bringing the number of sultanate followers killed to 52.
Eight Malaysian policemen were killed in skirmishes last weekend, for a total of 60.
But the number of casualties could not be confirmed independently as there appears to be a news blackout regarding the incursions into Sabah in Malaysia’s state-controlled media.
As foreign correspondents are barred from Lahad Datu, there is no way to independently verify the police information.
On Wednesday, Ahmad and Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein showed reporters pictures of the bloated bodies recovered from freshly dug graves, but they did not say whether those followers of the sultanate were killed in Tuesday’s military assault or in the fighting on March 1.
Eight Malaysian policemen were killed in clashes with the followers of the sultan since security forces launched an assault on the Sulu group that Friday.
Jamalul called for a ceasefire following the rout of his armed followers in an air and ground assault by Malaysian security forces on Tuesday.
But Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak rejected Jamalul’s ceasefire offer, demanding instead that his armed followers who intruded into Sabah and caused the crisis surrender unconditionally.
‘Cessation of hostilities’
Learning that Malaysia had rejected his offer, Jamalul suggested calling his offer “cessation of hostilities” and proposed an exchange of prisoners.
Jamalul turned down Malaysia’s demand that his followers surrender unconditionally.
“Comprehensive peace is not established with a surrender,” said the sultan’s spokesman, Abraham Idjirani.
The UN call for an end to the violence and Jamalul’s ceasefire offer came as Malaysian Air Force F-18 Hornets took to the skies again on Thursday and were seen flying toward Tanduao and Tanjung Bato village where Agbimuddin Kiram’s group had been driven by Tuesday’s heavy air strikes and artillery attacks.
But no explosions were heard at ground zero.
Police and military troops were also chasing fleeing followers of Jamalul in Labian district and the villages of Sungai Bilis and Lok Buani.
End to violence
News of the UN statement on the Sabah conflict reached Manila Thursday. In a statement issued from its headquarters in New York on Wednesday, the United Nations called on the parties involved in the Sabah conflict to end violence and uphold international human rights standards.
“[Secretary General Ban Ki-moon] is closely following the situation in Sabah. He urges an end to the violence and encourages dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation,” the United Nations said.
“The secretary general expresses concern about the impact of this situation on the civilian population, including migrants in the region,” it said. “He urges all parties to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and act in full respect of international human rights norms and standards.”
It was the first statement from the United Nations since the standoff between Malaysian security forces and Jamalul’s followers began in Tanduao village in Lahad Datu town in Sabah on Feb. 12.
After hearing about the UN statement, Jamalul declared a “unilateral ceasefire” that would take effect at 12:30 p.m. and urged Malaysia to reciprocate.
“They will not take any action. They will remain in the place where they are now. They will not expand operations,” Idjirani said, referring to the sultan’s followers who were reported Thursday as being chased by Malaysian security forces through five villages where they had been scattered by heavy air strikes and artillery attacks on Tuesday.
“We hope Malaysia reciprocates the same call for a ceasefire,” Idjirani said, adding that the sultanate was showing to the world that it adhered to Islamic tolerance.
To wait for UN guidelines
Idjirani said the sultan’s ceasefire call was “in compliance with the UN secretary general’s appeal” and intended to prove that the sultanate’s call for talks for a peaceful resolution of the Sabah conflict was true.
He said Jamalul’s brother, Agbimuddin, leader of the fleeing “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo,” would wait for the United Nations to lay down measures for the withdrawal of the sultan’s followers from Sabah.
“The coming home shall be discussed properly and comprehensively with the sultanate of Sulu and Malaysia under the guidance of the United Nations,” Idjirani said.
Hunt still on
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Jamalul’s ceasefire offer could prevent further bloodshed.
“Our aim has not changed. We will explore all possibilities to save lives and avoid bloodshed,” said Raul Hernandez, DFA spokesman.
“The suggestion of a unilateral ceasefire could be one of these options,” Hernandez said.
But Malaysia would not stop chasing Jamalul’s routed forces, as halting the police and military operations would give Agbimuddin and his men a chance to melt in the jungles of Sabah or disappear among the Tausug population of the state.
Najib visited Lahad Datu on Thursday to inspect government troops fighting Agbimuddin’s group and to announce the rejection of Jamalul’s ceasefire offer.
Najib told a news conference that Jamalul’s followers must lay down their arms and surrender unconditionally.
If they don’t surrender, the operations against them “will go on as long as it takes,” Najib said.
He also announced the setting up of a special security area to secure the borders of the east coast of Sabah and reassure the people of the state about their safety.
Najib said five battalions of Army and police would be stationed at the special area.
Najib also said the question of whether Sabah was part of Malaysia should not arise, as that has been determined legally as far back as 1878 and subsequently by the referendum conducted by the Cobbold Commission ahead of the formation of Malaysia.
“Do not underestimate Malaysia’s determination to maintain Sabah as part of Malaysia,” he said.
The Philippines and Indonesia, allies against Malaya at the time, never accepted the results of the referendum, which was allegedly rigged in favor of Malaya, later renamed as Malaysia.
The question of the 1878 contract between the sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Co. was settled by the British government itself by clarifying its position in a dispute with Germany and the Dutch government that “sovereignty remains with the sultan of Sulu” and that the British North Borneo Co. was merely an administering authority.
Destroy them all
Earlier Thursday, Malaysian Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi rejected Jamalul’s ceasefire declaration, saying Malaysia would accept his offer only if his followers would surrender unconditionally.
“Do not trust the ceasefire offer by Jamalul Kiram,” Ahmad said.
“In the interest of the people of Sabah and Malaysia, destroy all the militants,” he added, referring to Agbimuddin and his armed group.
After learning that Malaysia had rejected Jamalul’s ceasefire offer, Idjirani said the sultanate was declaring a “cessation of hostilities” as a positive response to the rejection.
By cessation of hostilities, he said he meant a stop to the Malaysian operation against Agbimuddin’s group.
He added that the sultanate was “willing to swap prisoners of war” if Malaysia would agree to a cessation of hostilities.
Supporters of the sultan in Sabah are reportedly holding four Malaysian police officials captured during an attack on a police station at Simunul village in Semporna town on Saturday night.
The Malaysians are holding 10 fighters from Agbimuddin’s group, captured during the fighting in Tanduao on March 1.
Idjirani suggested that the terms of the exchange of prisoners be agreed upon by the United Nations, Malaysia and the sultanate of Sulu with the “intercession” of the Philippine government.
There was no immediate comment from the Malaysian government on Thursday.
Jamalul sent his followers from their homes in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi across the Sulu Sea to assert an ancestral claim to Sabah.
The force headed by Agbimuddin landed in Tanduao on Feb. 9, expelled the residents and occupied the village, reports of which led to their discovery by the authorities on Feb. 12.
Malaysian security forces surrounded the village and threw a naval blockade off Lahad Datu, cornering Agbimuddin’s group, which rejected calls from both the Malaysian and Philippine governments for them to leave peacefully.
The standoff erupted in violece on March 1, after three extensions of a deadline for departure expired.
Twelve members of Agbimuddin’s group and two Malaysian policemen were killed in a gun battle that Friday.
The violence spread to other parts of Sabah on Saturday, resulting in more deaths on both sides and prompting a combination of air and ground attacks from the Malaysian military on Tuesday.
No. of casualties unclear
Idjirani said the actual number of slain followers of the sultanate remained unclear and that the only count he could confirm was 10 killed and four wounded in the March 1 “massacre.”
“The bombing is unstoppable, that’s why we don’t know if [they] have casualties from that,” Idjirani said.
Silent on dispute
The United Nations was silent on the dispute between the sultanate of Sulu and Malaysia over the ownership of Sabah, which the Kirams said they intended to bring to the world body and the International Court of Justice.
The administration of President Aquino says it continues to send emissaries to the Kirams to persuade them to call their followers home.
But the administration also threatens to bring charges against them and their accomplices for causing the international security crisis.—With reports from AP, AFP, The Star/Asia News Network