ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—Tension remains high in Sabah and in southern Philippines areas close to the east Malaysian state as the hunt for Agbimuddin Kiram and his men continued for the 14th day Tuesday under the Malaysian government’s Operasi Daulat, security officials on both sides said.
Philippine security officials reported that a total of 2,719 Filipinos had arrived in various areas of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu from Sabah.
Lieutenant General Rey Ardo, chief of the Western Mindanao Command based here, said ground, air and sea forces remained on “red alert” for the possible entry into Philippine territory of members of the so-called “royal army” of the sultanate of Sulu who were fleeing Malaysian military and police operations Sabah.
On March 13, the Philippine Navy intercepted 38 Sulu gunmen, including Edris Utal, reportedly a close aide of Agbimuddin’s, but the so-called Sulu sultanate’s crown prince was still nowhere to be found.
Ardo said Agbimuddin’s remaining forces may still try to return to the Philippines as Malaysian security forces continue to hunt them down in Sabah.
Meanwhile, a Sabah-based radio station reported Tuesday that the Malaysian Army deployed 12 more armored personnel carriers capable of traversing swamps or muddy terrain as more troops were redeployed to the Lahad Datu village of Tanjung Batu, where Malaysian security forces clashed twice with the Kirams’ so-called “royal army” during mopping up operations on Monday.
The station quoted Malaysian police chief Inspector General Ismail Omar Ismail as saying no casualties were recorded on the Malaysian side and that he did not know if the Kirams’ followers, whom he called “terrorists,” had suffered any casualties.
The station reported Ismail as telling reporters the two firefights took place just 40 minutes apart starting 8:05 a.m. on Monday and validated suspicions that the the “enemies” had moved farther into Tanjung Batu following the recapture of their hideaways in the villages of Sungai Nyamuk and Tanduo.
The state-run Radio 24 reported Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib as telling reporters at the same news conference that Malaysian security forces suspected that Tanjung Batu had become the last frontier of the resistance of the Sulu gunmen.
He said there could be fewer than 50 “terrorists” remaining of the more than 200 “invaders” and that they had converged on Tanjung Batu apparently in preparation for a “final battle.”
At least 62 members of the “royal army” have been killed, dozens injured or captured, while dozens more had fled and were intercepted by authorities in the Philippines Operasi Daulat started on March 5.
But Agbimuddin was not among those killed, raising suspicion that he could still be hiding in Sabah or might have already gone home.
Malaysian security forces suffered eight policemen and two soldiers killed, the latest being on Sunday.
The state-run news agency Berita Nasional Malaysia or Bernama reported Army Division Commander Maj. Gen. Ahmad Zaki Mokhtar as saying the Sulu gunmen were apparently preparing for a protracted war as “ordered” by Kiram.
But Ahmad Zaki said Malaysian security forces were ready and will finish the battle in just a few more days.
The Sabah crisis started from a stand-off that began on Feb. 12, three days after Agbimuddin Kiram and his men arrived for a “homecoming” in the Malaysian state. Although the men were armed only with vintage rifles such as Carbine and Garand and the traditional krises and machetes, they survived days of Malaysian air strikes and artillery bombardmant along with ground assaults by nearly 5,000 Malaysian soldiers and policemen 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 with the operation.
Bernama also reported that Malaysian Armed Forces Chief Gen. Zulkifeli Mohamad Zin had told reporters in Kuala Lumpur that the police and military action in Tanjung Batu could wrap up within the next two or three days.
The number of people rounded up by the authorities in connection with the campaign against the Kirams’ bid to reclaim Sabah, and for violation of restrictions against civilians in certain areas, reached 349 as of Monday. One of them died of illness in a hospital, Ismail 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.
In an interview during a recent visit to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Ardo said he tended to believe the claims of the Kirams that Agbimuddin was still alive because of the absence of funeral-related activities.
“If the locals in Simunul start a vigil, then we know he is dead already,” he said.
Asked where Agbimuddin might be, Ardo said he really had no idea and that the military was validating information it has been getting from all sources.
Unverified reports received by the Inquirer from some sources here said Agmuddin had gotten through a blockade established by the Philippine Navy and the Coast Guard in the south.
Senior Supt. Antonio Freyra, Sulu provincial director, told the Inquirer by phone that they had been given orders to find out if Agbimuddin was anywhere in the province.
He said policemen were specifically told to monitor the influx of evacuees from Sabah because Agbimuddin could be one of them.
“But so far, with all the documented landings of small and big sea vessels here (Jolo) and in some parts of the shores of Sulu we haven’t found any man who fits Agbimuddin’s description. Most those who arrived here in recent days were women and children,” Freyra said.