MANILA, Philippines—The Philippine military intelligence is checking reports that the leader of the armed group from the sultanate of Sulu that sparked the Sabah crisis has returned and is hiding in southern Philippines.
Malaysia’s military chief, Zulkifeli Zin, told a news conference in Lahad Datu, Sabah, on Thursday that Agbimuddin Kiram slipped out of the eastern Malaysian territory on March 11 and fled from one island to another for shelter.
“Agbimuddin is believed to have done so to avoid his location from being detected by the Moro people, and for fear that he will be arrested by the Philippine authorities,” Zulkifeli said.
Zulkifeli was commenting on recent allegations in a blog that Agbimuddin was shot dead by his own guard and that his body was buried in a place known only to his elite followers.
In reply to a question whether Malaysian security forces would track down Agbimuddin in the Philippines, Zulkifeli said that it was out of their jurisdiction.
He said that further action could be taken through Malaysia’s bilateral ties with the Philippines.
Agbimuddin led a 200-odd group in intruding into Sabah on Feb. 9. The group seized the coastal village of Tanduo to stake the Sulu sultanate’s claim to Sabah.
The group was discovered on Feb. 12, and the discovery sparked a standoff with Malaysian security forces that lasted for 17 days and exploded in violence on March 1.
Fighting between Agbimuddin’s group and the security forces has killed 73 people—63 from the Sulu group, eight Malaysian policemen and two soldiers.
Agbimuddin has been reported killed in the fighting, but Abraham Idjirani, spokesnan for the sultanate of Sulu, has denied the reports, saying Agbimuddin is alive and still in Sabah.
But Zulkifeli’s statements have caught the attention of the Philippine military intelligence.
“We’re checking, but nothing has turned up yet,” a source said when the Inquirer mentioned the Malaysian news report to him.
The Malaysian authorities themselves flip-flopped last week, first reporting that Agbimuddin has slipped out of Sabah then retracting the next day.
Idjirani yesterday denied again that Agbimuddin has reentered the Philippines.
“Those are all propaganda and psy-war tactics,” Idjirani told the Inquirer.
“If Malaysian security officials really believe what they are saying, they should order their forces back to Kuala Lumpur. Why are they still conducting operations in Lahad Datu?” Idjirani asked.
“I challenge them to lift the naval blockade. I dare them to order their forces to leave Lahad Datu if [Agbimuddin] has really left Sabah,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo, chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, said he tended to believe the Kirams’ claim that Agbimuddin is still alive because no funeral-related activities have been observed in Simunul, Agbimuddin’s village.
“If the locals in Simunul started a vigil, then we know he is really dead,” Ardo said.
Asked where Agbimuddin might be, Ardo said he had no idea.—With a report from Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao