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Filipino Muslims carry torches during a protest against military action, yesterday.
Felda Sahabat: Malaysia yesterday expanded its hunt for armed Filipino invaders who dodged a military assault meant to crush them, as a Philippine guerrilla said more Islamic fighters had arrived.
Malaysia’s police chief said followers of a self-styled Muslim sultan had scattered after an air and ground attack the day before in eastern Sabah state, aimed at ending a three-week stand-off, the country’s worst security crisis in years.
Indicating authorities were struggling to corral the slippery gunmen, they “expanded the operations area” yesterday to a wider swathe of Borneo island farm country, Ismail Omar said in a village near the battlezone.
For the first time, authorities also released evidence of militant deaths, handing out grisly photos of corpses and saying 13 bodies had been found.
But the latest announcements meant the government continued to have little proof that the assault on an estimated 300 militants pinned down amid vast oil palm plantations had hit the mark.
Officials said nine of the corpses were believed to have died in an earlier shootout and one was shot in mop-up operations yesterday. They did not offer an updated death toll.
Reports before Tuesday’s crackdown said 19 militants and eight police had been killed.
The invaders landed from the nearby southern Philippines on February 12, claiming Sabah for their Manila-based “sultan” Jamalul Kiram III, tearing open a long-dormant territorial row and causing residents to flee nearby towns and villages.
The elderly Kiram appeared to thumb his nose at Malaysia yesterday, saying he had just chatted by phone with his younger brother, one of the incursion’s purported leaders.
“He was telling me they are eating good food, but the hard thing is they are being chased. So where will they go?” he said, declining to specify their location but adding that they would not surrender.
The 74-year-old Kiram claims to be heir of the former sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled part of the southern Philippines and claimed sovereignty over Sabah. The intruders are attempting to reassert his claim to the remote area.
A leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which waged a past insurgency against the Philippine government, warned of more trouble ahead, saying hardened fighters from his Muslim group had arrived to support the militants.
“Many have slipped through the security forces” in recent days, Muhajab Hashim said in Manila, adding more were expected to join the fray, but declining to reveal numbers.
“They know the area like the back of their hands because they trained there in the past,” he said, referring to long-standing allegations that Malaysia helped trained MNLF leaders for their insurgency against Manila.
Muslim-majority Malaysia, accustomed to watching neighbours Thailand and the Philippines grapple with Islamic insurgents, has been shocked by the drama.
The government, which faces closely fought elections in coming months, has been harshly criticised by the opposition over the breach.
Britain, the US and Australia issued advisories warning against travel to affected areas. AFP