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‘Royal Army’ comes under fresh attacks

A day after the Philippines appealed for “maximum tolerance” in the Sabah conflict, Malaysian forces launched a new offensive against the followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III in Lahad Datu, pounding the Filipinos’ positions with airstrikes and mortar fire. The Sultanate of Sulu confirmed Tuesday morning that the Malaysian security forces began fresh attacks against the forces led by the sultan’s brother, Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, who have been holed up in Tanduo Village in Lahad Datu since Feb. 12. “We just received a call from Raja Muda informing us that a fighter plane has dropped bombs near their positions and that gunshots erupted from the Malaysian side,” the sultanate’s spokesman Abrahim Idjirani said from the Kiram family’s residence in Taguig City. “But they are puzzled because two bombs were dropped in the positions of the Malaysian forces surrounding them... This could be a friendly-fire incident,” Idjirani said. Raja Muda, he said, described the Malaysian plane as a “fighter jet” that has been circling Lahad Datu area since Monday. A report from Malaysia’s Star Online confirmed that fighter jets began flying sorties over the positions of the Agbimuddin’s armed contingent on Tuesday. The airstrikes were followed by artillery fire. At 8:30 a.m., Malaysian ground forces backed by armored vehicles started closing in and engaging the sultanate’s forces in an effort to end the three-week standoff. The Malaysian armed forces’ heavy armor began assembling in a remote corner of Felda Sahabat plantation, about 160 kilometers from Tanduo, before dawn Tuesday, the Star Online reported. Idjirani said Agbimuddin is well and his forces, numbering about 200, are prepared to defend themselves to the death, adding that the sultanate had begun stockpiling weapons in Sabah as early as November last year. “These are weapons of self-defense. We did not go there to wage war,” Idjirani said. He also denied Malaysian government reports that his group had been wiped out in Tuesday’s attack. “They are on the move. They are well. Raja Muda is moving from one place to another,” Idjirani said, while admitting that the crown prince’s lightly armed royal army is no match to the well-armed and numerically superior forces of the Malaysian military. Fellow ethic Tausugs and Filipino immigrants in Sabah sympathetic to the sultanate’s cause have been supplying Agbimuddin’s forces with weapons and provisions, the sultanate’s spokesman said. The Malaysian military has sent seven army battalions to Sandakan, Tawau, and Lahad Datu in preparation for the offensive. It was in Lahad Datu that Agbimuddin’s forces first clashed with Malaysian police on Friday, where 12 Filipinos and two Malaysian policemen were killed. Another encounter took place the following day in Semporna , killing six Malaysian policemen and at least six Filipinos. The Sulu Sultanate said it did not sanction the arrival of several groups of armed men that were reported to have landed in Sabah to reinforce the sultanate forces. “This was not organized by the sultanate. This is only voluntary on their part. If the Sultan had known about, he would stop them because he still wants to resolve this matter peacefully,” Idjirani said. In a statement posted in Malaysian’s New Straits Times, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said the attack was meant to protect Malaysia’s dignity and sovereignty. But the sultan’s spokesman said the fighting would become a protracted guerrilla war if peace is not negotiated. “Nobody wins here,” he said. “What we don’t understand is why our government will talk to the other side, but not to the sultanate.” He also said violence could have been averted if President Benigno Aquino III had handled the matter well. Also on Tuesday, former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chairman Nur Misuari offered to act as mediator between the Sulu Sultanate and the Malaysian government. Speaking at the Kiram family’s residence in Taguig, Misuari said he or an emissary can visit Kualu Lumpur to talk to Prime Minister Najib Zarak. “To resolve this problem, for the sake of peace, and to save the lives of not only the sultanate’s people but also of our Malaysian brothers, their blood is also precious and sacred, they are our Muslim brothers after all, I’m willing to go out there at my own expense,” he said. The MNLF chief also denied knowledge of reports that several MNLF groups have sent forces in Sabah to aid the troops of Agbimuddin. “I don’t know anything about it. At any rate, they went there without my knowledge at all. But of course, you know, if they want to extend some kind of support there, that’s a matter of patriotic duty on their part,” Misuari said. Earlier, Habib Mujahab Hashim, chairman of the MNLF’s Islamic Command Council, said they have sent reinforcements to Sabah to augment Agbimuddin’s forces. The MNLF contingent reportedly breached the Malaysian cordon in Sandakan, another part of Sabah, and ambushed two truckloads of troops belonging to the Malaysian Territorial Army Regiment. The crisis has sparked jitters about a spread of instability in Sabah, which is rich in timber and oil resources. Unknown numbers of other armed Filipinos are feared to have encroached on other districts in the area recently. More than seven hours after fighter jets were deployed, Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said no injuries occurred among Malaysian police and military personnel who went in to raid houses near palm oil plantations there. “On the enemy’s side, we have to wait because the operation is ongoing. We have to be careful,” the minister said, refusing to elaborate on whether there were Filipino casualties or captives. National police chief Ismail Omar said ground forces encountered resistance from gunmen firing at them. The clansmen, armed with rifles and grenade launchers, had refused to leave the area, staking a long-dormant claim to Malaysia’s entire state of Sabah, which they insisted was their ancestral birthright. Prime Minister Najib Razak defended the offensive, saying Malaysia made every effort to resolve the siege peacefully since the presence of the group in Lahad Datu district became known on Feb. 12, including by holding talks to encourage the intruders to leave without facing any serious legal repercussions. “For our sovereignty and stability, we will not allow even an inch of Malaysian territory to be threatened or taken by anyone,” Najib said. The Filipinos who landed in Lahad Datu, a short boat ride from Mindanao, insisted Sabah belonged to their royal sultanate for more than a century. Malaysian officials said they were taking no chances with public safety, sealing off areas within about 30 kilometers of the village and refusing to allow journalists past the road blocks. The Philippine government had urged Malaysia to exercise maximum tolerance to avoid further bloodshed. In Manila, presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was in Kuala Lumpur meeting with his Malaysian counterpart. With AP, Bloomberg
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