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Filipino protesters burn a placard with a picture of Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak during a rally outside the Malaysian Embassy in Manila, yesterday.
Felda Sahabat, Malaysia: Malaysia’s military yesterday launched a fierce assault, including jet fighters, on up to 300 Filipino intruders after a deadly three-week standoff, but the militants’ supporters said they had escaped and were alive and well.
Malaysia’s national police chief also raised doubts about the success of the air and ground attack, saying “mopping up” operations had yet to find any bodies and suggesting some of the militants might have slipped away.
Malaysian Premier Najib Razak said he had no choice but to unleash the military to end Malaysia’s biggest security crisis in years after the interlopers refused to surrender and 27 people were killed.
A day after the Philippines called for restraint, Malaysia launched a dawn assault on the gunmen on Borneo island, who invaded to claim Malaysian territory on behalf of a former Philippine sultanate.
Fighter jets bombed the standoff village of Tanduo in Sabah state on the northern tip of the island, followed by a ground assault by troops. The area is set amid vast oil-palm plantations.
“The longer this invasion lasts, it is clear to the authorities that the invaders do not intend to leave Sabah,” Najib said.
But Abraham Idjirani, spokesman for sultan Jamalul Kiram III, said the attack had occurred “away from where” their men were, saying he spoke with the leader of the group about eight hours after the assault was launched.
Malaysian federal police chief Ismail Omar said after the initial attack that Malaysian forces had suffered no casualties.
If the invaders had escaped a tight police and military cordon, it would likely fuel perceptions of incompetence by forces and sow fears that gunmen were loose.
The crisis comes as Malaysia’s 56-year-old ruling coalition is bracing for what is expected to be the country’s closest election against a formidable opposition, which has criticised handling of the incursion.
Jamalul Kiram III, 74, a self-proclaimed sultan and leader of the insurgents said earlier in Manila that the fighters, which had included his younger brother “will fight to the last man”.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has been shocked by the bold attack by the Islamists, who claim to be asserting Jamalul’s ancestral control of Sabah as heir to the defunct Sulu sultanate.
The invaders had been holed up in Tanduo village since landing by boat last month, highlighting lax Malaysian security and the continuing threat from southern Philippine Islamists.
“We’ve done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end, Kiram’s people chose this path,” a spokesman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino said.
Violence first erupted in Tanduo on Friday with a shootout that left 12 gunmen and two police officers dead. Another gunbattle on Saturday in the town of Semporna, hours away by road, killed six police and six gunmen.
Police said they were hunting for “foreign” gunmen in yet another town. Kiram’s followers have repeatedly warned that more militants were poised to land in Sabah.
The Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines, who had agreed to disarm in the 1990s and renounce its claim over Sabah as part of a peace pact, are also involved in deadly battles in Malaysia. Agencies