Malaysia launched airstrikes and mortar attacks against nearly 200 Filipinos occupying a Borneo seaside village Tuesday to end a bizarre three-week siege that turned into a security nightmare for both Malaysia and thePhilippines.
The assault follows firefights in Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state this past week that killed eight police officers and 19 Filipino gunmen, some of whom were members of a Philippine Muslim clan that shocked Malaysia and the neighboring Philippines by slipping by boat past naval patrols last month and storming an obscure village.
National police chief Ismail Omar said Malaysian security forces suffered no casualties in Tuesday’s offensive, but he did not give details about the Filipinos. Airstrikes “achieved their objectives in accordance to the targets,” while ground forces who encountered resistance from gunmen firing at them were carrying out “mopping up” operations by searching houses in the village, Ismail said, without elaborating on how many have been detained.
The clansmen, armed with rifles and grenade launchers, had refused to leave, staking a long-dormant claim to the entire state of Sabah, which they insisted was their ancestral birthright.
“The government has to take the appropriate action to protect national pride and sovereignty as our people have demanded,” Prime Minister Najib Razak said after the raid began in a statement issued through the national news agency, Bernama.
Authorities made every effort to resolve the siege peacefully since the presence of the group in Lahad Datu district became known on Feb. 12, including holding talks to encourage the intruders to leave without facing any serious legal repercussions, Najib said.
“The longer this intrusion persisted, it became clear to the authorities that the intruders had no intention to leave Sabah,” Najib said. “As a peace-loving Islamic country that upholds efforts to settle conflicts through negotiations, our struggle to avoid bloodshed in Lahad Datu did not work.”
Najib later said in a public speech that the offensive began with airstrikes followed by mortar attacks conducted by both the police and military.
The Filipinos who landed in Lahad Datu, a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, insisted Sabah belonged to their royal sultanate for more than a century. The group is led by a brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu.
Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the Filipinos, told reporters in Manila that the group would not surrender and that their leader was safe.
Idjirani said he spoke by phone with Kiram’s brother, who saw fighter jets dropping two bombs on a nearby village that he said the group had already abandoned.
“They can hear the sounds of bombs and the exchange of fire,” Idjirani said. “The truth is they are nervous. Who will not be nervous when you are against all odds?”
He said they will “find a way to sneak to safety.”
“If this is the last stand that we could take to let the world know about our cause, then let it be,” Idjirani said, describing the assault as “overkill.”
The Philippine government had asked Malaysia to exercise maximum tolerance to avoid further bloodshed.
In Manila, presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said Tuesday that Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was in Kuala Lumpur meeting with his Malaysian counterpart.
“We’ve done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end Kiram’s people chose this path,” Carandang said.
An undetermined number of other armed Filipinos are suspected to have encroached on other districts within 300 kilometers (200 miles) of Lahad Datu.
Some activists say the crisis illustrates an urgent need to review border security and immigration policies for Sabah, where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have headed in recent decades — many of them illegally — to seek work and stability.
Groups of Filipino militants have occasionally crossed into Sabah to stage kidnappings, including one that involved island resort vacationers in 2000. Malaysia has repeatedly intensified its patrols, but the long and porous sea border with the Philippines remains difficult to guard.
Some in Muslim-majority Malaysia advocated patience in handling the Lahad Datu intruders. But the deaths of the Malaysian police officers, including six who were ambushed while inspecting a waterfront village in a separate Sabah district on Saturday, triggered widespread alarm over the possibility of more such intrusions.
For the second time in two days, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III went on national TV on Monday to urge the Filipino group in Lahad Datu to lay down their arms, warning that the situation could worsen and endanger about 800,000 Filipinos settlers there.
The crisis could have wide-ranging political ramifications in both countries. Some fear it might undermine peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
It also could affect public confidence in Malaysia’s long-ruling National Front coalition, which is gearing up for general elections that must be held by the end of June. The coalition requires strong support from voters in Sabah to fend off an opposition alliance that hopes to end more than five decades of federal rule by the National Front.