LAHAD DATU, Malaysia—Authorities here are revising their earlier announcement that the elusive Raja Muda (Crown Prince) Agbimuddin Kiram had slipped out of Sabah and had fled back to Mindanao.
“We believe he’s in the Philippines but he could be here,” Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib said in a press conference late Saturday afternoon at the Felda Sahabat Residence.
A month ago, Agbimuddin and hundreds of men claiming to be the royal army of the Sultan of Sulu entered the village of Tanduo, near Tanjung Batu, in Felda Sahabat to revive a long-dormant claim over Sabah, surprising both the Philippines and Malaysia.
Agbimuddin’s group and Malaysian security forces were locked in a two-week standoff before fighting erupted on March 1, leading to Malaysia’s ongoing “Operation Sovereignty.”
In reversing Friday’s announcement, Hamza said that he did not need to inform his Philippine counterparts about new information regarding Agbimuddin’s whereabouts, saying that if he were caught in the Philippines, then he would be dealt with according to Philippine laws.
The Aquino administration had joined Malaysian officials in condemning the royal army incursion and said it was readying charges against Agbimuddin’s group.
Earlier yesterday, Hamza said there were only about 50 followers of Agbimuddin scattered in the area of operations in Lahad Datu.
“Operasi Daulat” or “Operation Sovereignty” against Agbimuddin and his men would continue, Hamza said, adding that efforts of the security forces were now focused on Tanjung Batu, a village within Felda Sahabat.
Deserted his men
On Friday, Malaysian police chief Inspector General Ismail Omar and Malaysian military chief Gen. Zulkifeli Mohammad Zin were quoted by Radio 24 as saying that Agbimuddin had deserted his men in Sabah and had fled to the Philippines.
Radio 24, which also maintains an online radio site, is a station operated by state media group Berita National Malaysia (Bernama).
“He has abandoned his men and had slipped out of Sabah recently for the Philippines,” a voice clip accompanying the report and identified as that of Ismail’s, said.
Ismail was also quoted in the report as saying that Agbimuddin’s departure from Sabah amid the intensified crackdown on his “terrorist group” was reported by both the police’s and the military’s intelligence groups working independently of each other.
He said the offensive had forced Agbimuddin to flee Sabah because his group was now crippled.
Malaysian military chief General Zulkifeli Mohamad Zin also made a similar statement during the same late Friday news conference that Ismail had spoken at, Radio 24 said.
Zulkifeli was quoted as saying that the series of assaults by security forces —backed by artillery rounds and air assets on the suspected hideaway of the “Sulu terrorists” in the red zones of Lahad Datu, Semporna, Tawau and Kunak had driven more gunmen out of Sabah.
But both officials, Radio 24 said, were not too clear on how Agbimuddin and his men managed to slip out of Sabah amid the “tightened security” announced earlier.
The tightened cordon around Sabah waters is being maintained by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN).
MMEA director Adm. Mohamad Amdan Kurish told reporters in a recent news conference that the agency had deployed three ships and six patrol boats in addition to the three ships that had been patrolling Sabah waters prior to the crisis.
On March 8, Zulkifeli was also quoted by Bernama as saying the “tightened cordon” had prevented the “Sulu terrorists” from slipping out of Sabah.
“We are convinced that they are trapped in Kampung Tanduo and Kampung Tanjung Batu. We will continue to enforce the cordon and conduct the search, focusing on the two places,” Bernama quoted him as telling reporters at the time.
Inquirer sources from the Philippines’ defense establishment said that as far as the Philippine government was concerned, there was no information about Agbimuddin being in the Philippines.
“Malaysia must have some basis for saying that the Raja Muda has left Sabah. But as long as we have no information that validates his presence here (Philipines), he’s there (Sabah),” one of the Inquirer sources in Manila said in a phone interview.
Another source said in a separate interview that Manila continued to gather information about Agbimuddin’s whereabouts.
The sources spoke to the Inquirer on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Abraham Idjirani, spokesperson of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, had laughed off Malaysia’s announcement that Agbimuddin had left Sabah.
“That’s only a propaganda by Malaysia. They’re saying that so as not to disturb their elections. I don’t have to explain that. It is a counterstrategy,” Idjirani said in a phone interview late Friday night.
Idjirani said he last spoke with Agbimuddin at 2 p.m. on Friday, insisting that the leader of the royal army was still in Sabah.
Told about the sultanate’s denial that Agbimuddin was no longer in Sabah, Hamza said, “I can tell you from day one, I never trusted Jamalul Kiram. He can say anything. As I mentioned just now, if Agbimuddin is there (Mindanao), there is no problem for us. There are investigation papers and we will deal with the situation according to our laws.”
Continues to reach out
In Manila, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said yesterday in an interview that the Aquino administration continued to seek a peaceful resolution to the Sabah standoff, but would not insist on sending the humanitarian Navy ship, BRP Tagbanua, to Lahad Datu without clearance from Malaysia.
Roxas’ disclosure suggested that Manila was not about to heighten tensions by pursuing actions that would appear to be provocative in the eyes of Kuala Lumpur.
“We continue to reach out (to Malaysia). We are working on (the safe passage of Filipinos from Sabah),” Roxas said.