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Coffins of Malaysian police personnel killed on Saturday in Semporna in Sabah state, are carried after their arrival at an airport in Subang, outside Kuala Lumpur, yesterday.
Kuala Lumpur: Terrified Malaysians fled a town where the bodies of gunmen lay in the streets yesterday as the Philippines urged its neighbour to show “maximum tolerance” for Islamic Filipino intruders.
Twenty-seven people have been reported killed after two deadly shootouts in Malaysia’s state of Sabah on Borneo island, where militants landed on February 12 and claimed the state on behalf of the heir to a former Philippine sultanate.
Convoys of armed vehicles moved towards affected areas after Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose government was scrambling to contain Malaysia’s worst security crisis in years, ordered strengthened security in the state.
Dispatching Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to Malaysia, Manila called the deaths “deeply regrettable” and urged “maximum tolerance in dealing with the remaining members” of the sultan’s group.
It prodded Malaysia for more information on the confused situation on the ground and asked that a Philippine naval ship be allowed to provide humanitarian, consular and medical help to besieged intruders.
An estimated 100-300 Filipino intruders have been holed up for three weeks, surrounded by police and the military, in the remote farming village of Tanduo.
The standoff erupted in a shootout on Friday that killed 12 intruders and two policemen.
Fears of a wider guerrilla infiltration spread after a Saturday gunbattle in Semporna, a town hours away from Tanduo by road, in which six police and six gunmen died.
Another gunman was beaten to death by villagers.
Federal police chief Ismail Omar was quoted by the national news agency Bernama as saying yesterday that the situation was “under control”.
But residents were fleeing the normally laid-back seaside town, where the foul-smelling corpses of three men still lay in the streets.
Residents said they were gunmen killed by police. “Our peaceful town has become a nightmare to live in,” Julasri Yaakob, 38, said as he heaved a bag full of clothes onto a lorry.
Schools, stores and government offices were closed in the town but there was little sign of a security presence despite the shootout and fleeing population.
The affair has exposed lax border security and was likely to fuel long-standing complaints in Sabah that massive illegal immigration has fuelled lawlessness, just as Najib is due to call elections in coming months.
Followers of the 74-year-old Manila-based Islamic leader, Jamalul Kiram III, say the gunmen are ready to die to defend his claim to Sabah, which was once controlled by the now-defunct sultanate.
Supporters of the Filipino intruders took their campaign to cyberspace yesterday, manipulating Google listings to post a message backing the incursion.
A Google search for “Sabah” came back with a results page that displayed a “Wikipedia” entry preview calling Malaysian control of the state “illegitimate”.
A number of Philippine sites also were reportedly defaced by pro-Malaysia hackers.
The exact identities of the gunmen and their numbers remain a mystery. Malaysia’s opposition has pounced, accusing the government of incompetence, failure to protect national sovereignty and failure to release timely information on the crisis.
Sabah has seen previous smaller cross-border raids from Islamic militants and other bandits from the Philippines, but nothing of this scale.
The Sulu sultanate’s power faded about a century ago but it has continued to receive nominal Malaysian payments for Sabah under a lease deal inherited from European colonial powers.