LAHAD DATU, MALAYSIA – Five Malaysian policemen and two gunmen died in a fresh clash on Borneo as fears mounted that violence linked to a deadly standoff with Filipino intruders had spread to other areas, police said Sunday.
The shootout late Saturday in the town of Semporna followed a firefight the day before between Filipino followers of a self-proclaimed sultan and Malaysian security forces that left 12 intruders dead along with two police officers.
The new clash in Semporna, 300 km from the site of the three-week standoff, occurred when police were “ambushed” by gunmen during a security sweep, Malaysia’s national police chief, Ismail Omar, told reporters.
An estimated 100-300 Filipinos have been surrounded in a farming village by a Malaysian police and military cordon since landing by boat from the nearby Philippines on Feb. 12 to insist the area belongs to their Islamic leader.
The leader, Jamalul Kiram III, 74, claims to be the heir to the Islamic sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled parts of the southern Philippines and the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo Island.
Malaysian media also quoted Ismail as saying that police are pursuing yet another group of armed men in Kunak, another town in the area.
The fresh developments have sparked Malaysian fears of a possible wider campaign of violence by supporters of the group in Sabah, which has large numbers of Filipino immigrants, both legal and illegal.
Officials issued calls for calm as some stores in the region reported panic buying of goods.
“I am calling for cooperation and assistance from local leaders to tone down the sentiments and numerous rumors on what is happening in Sabah,” Musa Aman, the state’s chief minister, was quoted as saying by Malaysian media.
Earlier Sunday, Sabah police chief Hamza Taib was quoted as confirming the latest clash was linked to the ongoing siege in the village of Tanduo, which is hours away by road. Reports provided no further details.
Ismail said, however, it remains unclear whether there is any link between the two incidents.
The situation is a highly delicate one for the Southeast Asian neighbors.
The Philippine government is looking to consolidate recent progress in mending fences with Islamic separatists in its predominantly Muslim south.
Muslim-majority Malaysia, meanwhile, could face pressure at home for taking harsh action against the Islamic intruders.
Following Friday’s initial firefight, Malaysian police threatened “drastic action” to clear out the trespassers.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who has sharply criticized the intruders, also urged them to surrender unconditionally.
But Kiram’s spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, repeated Sunday that his followers will not budge.
He added the sultan will seek U.S. intervention, citing a past agreement with Washington, which controlled the Philippines in the early 1900s.
“(Malaysia) want to hide the truth, that they do not own Sabah. It is owned by us,” Idjirani said.
U.S. Embassy officials in Manila were not immediately available to comment.
The standoff has embarrassed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak — who must call elections by June — by exposing lax border security and fueling perceptions of lawlessness and massive illegal immigration in Sabah.
His long-ruling government was already on the defensive over allegations that in the 1990s it gave citizenship to possibly hundreds of thousands of illegal Filipino and Indonesian migrants in Sabah in exchange for their votes.
Kiram’s people are demanding Malaysia recognize the sultanate owns Sabah and share profits from economic development in the state.