The death toll from the three-week long standoff between the Malaysian authorities and the Filipino rebels, who were holed up in the northern Borneo village in Sabah has reached 31 as the police attacked the rebels with fighter jets and mortars, Tuesday.
Till Sunday, before the aerial attack began at least eight Malaysian commandos and 23 members of the Filipino rebel force – Royal Army of Sulu, died in the police crackdown, according to a media reports.
The Tuesday’s attack with fighter Jets were followed by a ground assault on the rebels. Malaysian state news agency Bernama reported that there weren’t any casualties on the Malaysian side while it is unclear how many of the Filipino rebels got killed or wounded, the New York Times reported.
The Filipino rebels numbering about 200, who identified themselves as descendants of the leaders of the Sulu Sultanate, reached the remote village of Lahad Datu in northeastern Malaysian state of Sabah, Feb.12. The group reportedly armed, claimed their ancient rights on portions of the island that was once ruled by the Sultanate of Sulu, triggering strife with the Malaysian authorities.
The Sultanate of Sulu, now a defunct Islamic kingdom, had for centuries ruled southern Philippines and parts of Borneo Island comprising the Lahad Datu village in the present Sabah state, Malaysia. The Sulu province is situated at the southern portion of the Philippines, located midway between Basilan and Tawi-Tawi and is less than two hours to reach by speedboat from Lahad Datu village – a top palm plantation region in the country.
The rebel group followers of Jamalul Kiram, a self-professed sultan of Sulu, refused to accept any peace talk’s initiative and declared they would fight till death.
“There will be no surrender,” Jamalul Kiram's spokesman Abraham Idjirani said in a televised briefing in Manila. “They’re seeking the immediate intervention of international agencies to look into the truth about this issue,” he added.
The Malaysian government resorted to armed attack to oust the intruders after several attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully failed.
“As the intrusion prolonged, it was clear that the intruders had no intention to leave Sabah,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday, Bloomberg reported. “The government must take action to defend the country’s dignity and sovereignty,” he said.
Although the Malaysian forces said they have defeated the rebel forces following the aerial and ground attacks Tuesday, the rebel group refuted the claim and said that Kiram’s followers led by his brother Raja Muda are still fighting to defend the sultanate’s claim over Sabah.
The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has requested the Malaysian government to provide safe passage to the women, children and other Filipino civilians, who are not involved in the struggle to evacuate from the region.
There are at least 570,000 Filipinos in Malaysia as of 2011, according to data from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, including 447,000 without appropriate papers.
The ongoing conflict has reignited the tensions between Malaysia and Philippines over immigration issues, and has posed challenges to Prime Minister Razak’s government as the country is due to face general elections in June.
Sabah is a key state in the general election and any delay in solving the crisis could lead to a delay in the elections. Any such move – likely to be defined as government's inability to handle the problem – could prove disastrous for the prime minister in the elections.
The faceoff has also threatened the economic and tourist interests of the resource-rich Sabah region, which accounts for a quarter of the country’s palm oil production. The major palm oil refineries situated in the region have slowed down their operations after the standoff and have threatened to halt operations if the issue drags on.
"The three companies owning these refineries are looking to cease operations if it becomes worse and there is a high chance it will happen," a refinery official with direct knowledge of the matter, told Reuters.