MANILA, Philippines—Rough seas swept away a motorboat carrying a Liberal Party mayoral candidate, his running mate and 30 supporters from Tawi-Tawi on Tuesday and took it to, of all places, Lahad Datu in Sabah, site of five weeks of fighting between Malaysian security forces and followers of the sultan of Sulu.
As a result, Rommel Matba, his vice mayoral running mate Amman Matba and 30 village leaders from Languyan town in Tawi-Tawi landed in a police station in Sandakan, where Malaysian police took them on suspicion they were reinforcements for the decimated forces of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.
Jamalul’s press officer Abraham Idjirani confirmed on Wednesday that Matba and his group were politicians campaigning for local elections in Languyan and not members of the sultanate’s security forces.
“I was told they were traveling to Mapun municipality, also in Tawi-Tawi, for [a Liberal Party] rally when they were lost at sea because of strong currents in Tambisan Bay,” Idjirani told the Inquirer by phone.
Capt. Rene Yongque, commander of Naval Task Force 62, reported that rough seas swept the Liberal Party group’s motorboat across the border at Taganak Island in Tawi-Tawi where it was intercepted by Malaysian border police.
But Acting Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao used a different term to describe the misadventure of Matba’s group.
“They were rescued by Malaysian maritime personnel and were taken to Sabah,” Hataman said.
“We have already coordinated with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), which has issued a certification that Matba and his men were not part of any [Sulu] armed group,” Hataman said.
Liberal Party Secretary General Joseph Emilio Abaya told the Inquirer that DFA officials were “already working” to bring Matba and his supporters back to the country.
Idjirani said he learned from a relative of Matba that the group carried two M16 rifles and handguns “for the candidate’s security.”
Idjirani saw no problem, as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) allowed candidates to carry firearms for security and those carried by Matba’s goup were within Comelec regulations.
Matba’s group is “temporarily at the Sandakan police station,” an official at the Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur told the Inquirer by phone.
The official, who asked not to be identified for lack of authority to speak to the press, said an embassy official was now in Sandakan to “make arrangements for their (Matba’s group) repatriation.”
Reports monitored from Digos City on Wednesday quoted Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib as saying Matba and his supporters were detained and under investigation.
The group from Tawi-Tawi was closely guarded by Malaysian police because of a claim of the Sulu sultanate on Tuesday that 400 “volunteer fighters” had landed in Sabah to reinforce the decimated group led by the sultan’s brother, Agbimuddin Kiram.
A government official, however, doubted the sultanate’s claim.
“That is a fantastic claim. How can they get there when Malaysia has heavily militarized the northern and eastern coasts of Sabah?” the official said in an interview with the Inquirer.
The official, who requested anonymity, was referring to the special security zone set up by the Malaysian government in the coastal region of Sabah to prevent further intrusions after the military bombed Agbimuddin’s armed group out of Tanduo village in Lahad Datu in early March.
Malaysian police say 70 members of Agbimuddin’s group have been killed since fighting began on March 1. Ten police and two soldiers have been killed on the government’s side.
Idjirani on Tuesday said 400 volunteer fighters landed in Sabah between March 30 and April 5, reinforcing Agbimuddin’s group and leading to clashes with Malaysian security forces in Tanjung Batu village.
The size of the volunteer group is twice that of the original force led by Agbimuddin, which landed in Sabah on Feb. 9.
Another Inquirer source said Malacañang officials also doubted the Sulu sultanate’s latest claim of support.
“It is difficult to believe that more than 400 men arrived in Lahad Datu without being detected, even if, let’s say, they traveled at night in small groups,” the source, also requesting anonymity, said.
The source was in a meeting with Palace officials when Idjirani’s claim was reported by the news media.
In Sabah, Hamza confirmed the arrest of a man whom witnesses claimed was the mastermind behind the intrusion of Agbimuddin’s group into Sabah.
Hamza declined to identify the man, but said the suspect was also behind the attack by Agbimuddin’s men in Semporna district on March 2. Two Malaysian policemen were killed in that attack, he said.
Hamza also refused to say whether the man was a Malaysian or a foreigner, as charges had yet to be filed against the suspect.
Fifteen Filipinos are facing charges in a Sabah court in connection with Agbimuddin’s intrusion into the territory.
The Philippine government has hired Malaysian lawyer N. Sivananthan to represent the Filipinos, who are charged with terrorism and waging war against the king of Malaysia.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday said it would reinvestigate 38 people arrested in Tawi-Tawi last month on suspicion of being part of Agbimuddin’s group that fled Sabah after the Malaysian military assault on March 5.
A court in Tawi-Tawi earlier ordered the DOJ to conduct a preliminary investigation to give the 38 a chance to respond to the charges brought by the government against them.
Prosecutor General Claro Arellano said the preliminary investigation would be held in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, starting April 17.—With reports from Jerome Aning in Manila; and from Julie S. Alipala, Karlos Manlupig and Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao