MANILA, Philippines—Liberal Party (LP) mayoralty candidate Rommel Matba and his 31 companions were back in Tawi-Tawi on Thursday night, two days after they were detained by Malaysian authorities because their motorboat drifted to Lahad Datu in Sabah, officials said on Friday.
Malaysian authorities released Matba’s group after Philippine foreign affairs officials vouched for their claim they were bound for the Turtle Islands to campaign but were swept by strong waves to Sabah, officials said.
“They were escorted (by Malaysian border police) up to the boundary of Sandakan and Taganak Island,” acting Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said by phone. “They’re now back in Tawi-Tawi.”
Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II, head of the LP, also confirmed that Matba’s group was released from Malaysian custody and ad journeyed back to Tawi-Tawi on Thursday.
“They were treated well,” Hataman said.
The LP group’s motorboat was intercepted by Malaysian border police near Taganak Island in Tawi-Tawi last Tuesday. The group was taken to a police station in Sandakan on suspicion they were reinforcements for the forces of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, who are renewing the Sultanate’s claim to Sabah and have clashed with Malaysian police forces.
Malaysian authorities also returned all the seized items from Matba’s group, including guns and machetes, he added.
“Matba’s group left Sandakan on board ML Shernalyn for Taganak Island, Tawi-Tawi at about 6:50 p.m., escorted by Malaysian marine police and Navy boats,” he said, quoting the Philippine National Police.
Tawi-Tawi Governor Sadikul Sahali told the Inquirer that unlike past cases of arrests of illegal entrants in the border area, it was not possible to settle through “pakiusapan” or informal negotiations.
“In the past, it was easy for us to intercede for the release of arrested Filipinos in Sabah,” Sahali said. But this time he was told he would have to pass through diplomatic channels.
Stricter on security
Malaysian authorities were stricter on security this time, unlike in the past when they somehow tolerated Filipinos intruding into Malaysian waters near Turtle Island, Vice Governor Ruby Sahali added.
Turtle Island lies on the border between Malaysia and the Philippines.
The interception of Matba’s group came amid claims by the Sulu sultanate that some 400 “volunteer fighters” had landed in Sabah to reinforce the group of Agbimuddin Kiram, a younger brother of the self-proclaimed sultan who is said to be leading the fighting in Sabah.
The alleged incursion by Agbimuddin and nearly 200 members of the sultanate’s “royal army” into Lahad Datu town in mid-February erupted in violence on March 1, and prompted air and ground assaults from Malaysian forces, leaving more than 70 people dead.
A subsequent Malaysian crackdown on Agbimuddin’s followers has sent thousands of undocumented Filipinos in Sabah back to Mindanao.