DIGOS CITY, Philippines– Malaysian security forces twice clashed with the “royal army” during mopping-up operations in Tanjung Batu in Lahad Datu on Monday, Malaysian police Chief Insp. Gen. Ismail Omar said.
Speaking to reporters at the media center in Felda Sahabat, as reported by a Sabah-based radio station, Ismail said no casualty had been recorded on the Malaysian side and that it remained uncertain whether or not the “terrorists” also suffered injuries or even deaths in the two firefights that took place just 40 minutes apart starting 8:05 a.m.
He was quoted as saying the clashes had validated suspicions by Malaysian security forces that the “enemies” had moved farther into Tanjung Batu as their former hideaways in the villages of Sungai Nyamuk and Tanduo had been recaptured.
The state-run Radio 24, quoting Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib as telling reporters during the same news conference, said Malaysian security forces also suspected that Tanjung Batu had become the last frontier of the resistance of the “enemies.”
He said there could be fewer than 50 “terrorists” remaining of the more than 200 “invaders,” and that they had now converged in Tanjung Batu in an obvious “final battle.”
At least 62 members of the Sulu “royal army” had been killed, dozens injured and captured, while dozens more of others had fled Sabah and had been intercepted by authorities in the Philippines since Ops Daulat started on March 5.
Malaysian security forces suffered casualties of eight policemen and two soldiers dead, the latest being on Sunday.
Army Division Commander Maj. Gen. Ahmad Zaki Mokhtar, the state-run Berita Nasional Malaysia (Bernama) reported, had said the “terrorists” were apparently preparing for a protracted war as “ordered” by Sulu sultan Jamalul Kiram III.
But Ahmad Zaki said Malaysian security forces were ready and would finish the battle in just a few days from Monday.
The Sabah crisis started from a stand-off on Feb. 12, three days after Jamalul’s brother Agbimuddin Kiram and his men arrived for a “homecoming” on the Malaysian state.
Although they were not as sophisticatedly armed as the Malaysians—using mainly vintage rifles such as Carbine and Garand in addition to the traditional kris and machete—they had managed to stand up to the days of air strikes and artillery rounds, as well as ground assault by nearly 5,000 ground forces backed by armored personnel carriers.
Ahmad Zaki said more military hardware had arrived, including a “squadron of tracked Armored Personnel Carriers (APC)” to help ground forces with the operation.
The new batch of APCs would be used in such “unreachable” areas as swamps, he said.
Bernama also reported that Malaysian Armed Forces Chief Gen. Zulkifeli Mohamad Zin had told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, also on Monday, that the police and military action in Tanjung Batu could wrap up within the next two or three days.
He also confirmed, Bernama said, that new army battle tanks had arrived in Cenderwasih in Lahad Datu earlier in the day although he was not specific on the number of the newly arrived hardware.
As this developed, the number of arrested persons in connection with the campaign against the sultanate of Sulu’s bid to retake Sabah, and for violation of restrictions against civilians in some areas, had already reached 349 as of Monday. One of those earlier arrested has died of illness in a hospital, Ismail said, which put the total number of “living persons” currently in detention at 348.
The new arrests took place in a water village in Sandakan after villagers tipped off the police about the presence of three suspicious men, the Sabah-based radio station reported Monday.
Quoting an unidentified police source, the station said the three men were being detained under the Security Offenses and Special Measures Act (Sosma), which allows authorities to keep a suspected terrorist under custody for 28 days without being charged.
Bernama, which also carried a report on the Sandakan arrest, has quoted Sandakan police chief Rowell Marong as confirming the three men, whose identities remain unknown as of Monday evening, were nabbed on the water village of Sim-Sim.
The police, according to the Sabah radio report, had said no firearm or weapon of any kind had been seized from the suspects, who were all of Filipino descent.
Bernama had quoted Rowell as saying the arrest of the three men prompted police to place water villages in Sandakan under tight watch.
Water villages in Sabah had become the object of recent discussions among authorities following several arrests or deaths of suspected Sulu gunmen in these areas, which is mostly populated by the Orang Bajau, or people who trace their origin in Tawi-Tawi, since the Malaysian crackdown started.
Six of the 10 Malaysian casualties also died in a water village in Semporna district after an ambush by Sulu gunmen on March 2.
Recently, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he favored the demolition of the water villages, whose proliferation he allowed when he was Malaysian leader because of humanitarian considerations for the Badjaos.
Mahathir, Malaysian media had reported, allegedly said the water villages had proven to be not only eye sores but also the source of pollution; and more importantly, the hideaways of criminals and, recently, “the terrorists.”
But he clarified that Malaysian citizens and foreigners who had acquired permanent residency should be relocated.
“Those without identification or immigration documents have to be sent to their places of origin,” said Mahathir, who remains a powerful figure in Malaysian governance despite retiring as leader several years ago.
In Sarawak, police authorities have tightened “security surveillance” to keep the “invaders” away.
Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani, Sarawak police commissioner, had said the particular areas they were watching closely were the Sarawak districts of Merapok, Lawas and Limbang. He said the Sabah police were also keeping an eye on the Sabah district of Sindumin, near Merapok.
“Even though, there were still no threats evident in Sarawak, we are monitoring the security situation closely,” Radio 24 quoted Acryl Sani as telling reporters at the Miri airport, also on Monday.