LAHAD, DATU MALAYSIA – After a tense standoff erupted into a shootout that killed 14 people Friday, Malaysia threatened Saturday to take “drastic action” against intruding followers of self-claimed Philippine Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.
Twelve followers of the little-known sultan of Sulu and two Malaysian security members were killed in the firefight, police said, as the more than two-week-old siege in a remote corner of Malaysia turned deadly.
The dozens of Filipinos have been holed up on Borneo Island, surrounded by a massive Malaysian police and military cordon, since landing by boat from their nearby Philippine islands to insist the area belongs to their Islamic leader.
The village has been occupied by a group led by Agbimuddin Kiram, a brother of the head of a Filipino Muslim royal clan. The group earlier ignored appeals from Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to leave immediately or face prosecution at home on charges of triggering an armed conflict.
Earlier Friday, Kiram told Philippine radio station DZBB that Malaysian police surrounding the village opened fire and that his group fought back.
“They suddenly came in; we had to defend ourselves,” Kiram said. Sounds of shots were heard in the background while he was being interviewed by telephone.
Hamza Taib, police chief of the Malaysian state of Sabah where the drama is taking place, said the shootout erupted when the armed Filipinos opened fire on police, who were attempting to tighten their security cordon.
“We want them to surrender immediately. If they don’t, they will face drastic action,” Hamza said.
He declined to provide details of what security forces have in store but his comments echoed growing Malaysian impatience with the situation.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose government has been embarrassed by the security breach, said in the shootout’s aftermath 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. “I am very sad over the incident because what we had wanted to prevent, which is bloodshed, has actually happened,” Najib added.
Muslim-majority Malaysia had previously avoided tough talk, expressing hope the intruders would leave peacefully.
The interlopers, who have been variously estimated at between 100 to 300, sailed from their remote Philippine islands to press the sultan’s claim.
Jamalul Kiram, 74, claims to be the heir to the Islamic sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled parts of the southern Philippines and a portion of Borneo.
Last week Aquino urged the sultan, Agbimuddin Kiram’s older brother in the southern Philippine province of Sulu, to order his followers to return home and called their action a “foolhardy act” that was bound to fail.
The standoff elevated the Sabah territorial issue, which has been a thorn in Philippine-Malaysian relations for decades, to a Philippine national security concern. The crisis erupted at a crucial stage of peace negotiations — brokered by Malaysia — between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
Aquino has said that the standoff may have been an attempt to undermine his government on the part of those opposing the peace deal, including politicians and warlords who fear being left out in any power-sharing arrangements.