KUALA LUMPUR - Twelve Filipinos and two Malaysian police officers died in a clash Friday that immediately raised the pressure on dozens of Philippine intruders who are pushing a claim to Malaysian territory.
The impasse, in which Malaysian police and military units have locked down the rural area, erupted in violence Friday when security forces moved to tighten a cordon around the intruders, police said.
“The intruders fired at us, then we returned fire,” Hamza Taib, police chief of the Malaysian state of Sabah, told AFP. “As a result of the fire, two of my men died, three were injured and... 12 intruders died.”
The interlopers, who have been variously estimated at between 100 to 300 people, sailed from their remote Philippine islands to press the sultan’s claim to Sabah.
They are followers of Jamalul Kiram III, 74, who claims to be the heir to the Islamic Sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled parts of Borneo as well as southern Philippine islands.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose government has been embarrassed by the security breach but has avoided overly tough talk until now, said in the wake of the clash that he told police and armed forces to take whatever action necessary to end the impasse. “Now there is no grace period for the group to leave,” he was quoted as saying by Malaysian media, blaming the intruders for sparking the violence.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman also said the incident left a “small window of opportunity to arrive at a peaceful conclusion.”
“We are exerting every effort to seize that opportunity, and are hopeful that the Kiram family and their followers will seize it with us, so that further bloodshed may be avoided,” spokesman Ricky Carandang said.
He said Aquino “deeply regretted the loss of life,” but added: “We have maintained that this action of the Kirams was not the correct way to assert their claims.”
Hamza said the clash began when the sultan’s followers opened fire, but did not make clear how the two security personnel were killed. Malaysia’s state news agency Bernama reported two police commandos died when they were hit by mortar fire as they patrolled around the village where the gunmen were holed up.
However, Kiram’s spokesman Abraham Idjirani earlier blamed Malaysian forces for sparking the clash, saying snipers had killed 10 of the sultan’s men and wounded four others.
The leader of the invaders, Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, a brother of the self-proclaimed sultan, avoided capture in the shootout and remains in Sabah with his men to continue the fight, Idjirani added. “This is just the beginning,” he warned.
Philippine foreign department spokesman Raul Hernandez said Manila had formally demanded a full account of the shootout. The Islamic Sultanate of Sulu leased northern Borneo to Europeans in the 1870s.
While the sultanate’s authority gradually faded as Western colonial powers exerted their influence over the region, it continued to receive lease payments for Sabah.
The former British colony became part of the federation of Malaysia when it was formed in 1963. Kiram and the other heirs of the sultan still receive nominal annual compensation from Malaysia - the equivalent of about $1,700.
Idjirani suggested last week that the men would stand down if the compensation was substantially raised.