'Royal Sulu Army' in Malaysia stand-off

Posted at 02/14/2013 11:02 PM | Updated as of 02/15/2013 1:23 PM

KUALA LUMPUR (3rd UPDATE) – Malaysia's government said Thursday that its security forces have surrounded dozens of suspected Philippine militants in a remote area with a history of incursions by armed Filipino Islamic groups.

About 80 to 100 gunmen have been cornered in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.

He said security forces were negotiating with the men near the small coastal town of Lahad Datu.

"We know the situation is still under control. I confirm that no Malaysian citizens, to my knowledge, are being held hostage or for ransom," Hishammuddin said.

"Security forces are still in control and negotiating with them, some of whom are armed."

The Filipinos are calling themselves "Royal Sulu Sultanate Army," according to a report from the Malaysian news portal The Star Online.

They claim to be followers of "a descendant of the Sultan of Sulu" and are demanding that the subjects of the Sulu Sultan in Sabah not be deported to the Philippines, the report said.

A Philippine military officer interviewed by Reuters also said the men were followers of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu - an island group off the southern Philippines - who had been invited to Sabah by a Malaysian opposition politician to discuss land issues.

The Sulu sultanate, first founded in the 1400s, was once a regional power center, controlling islands in the Muslim southern Philippines and parts of Borneo including Sabah until its demise a century ago.

Malaysia pays a token amount to the Sultanate each year for the "rental" of Sabah state - an arrangement that stretches back to British colonial times.

The Star quoted a Malaysian police official as saying that the group involved in the standoff did not want to be associated with any militant group from the Philippines.

"They have made known their demands while we have told them that they need to leave the country," Police Inspector-General Tan Sri Ismail Omar told media.

Negotiations are still ongoing to get them to return to the Philippines, he added.

Hishammuddin said Philippine authorities are involved in negotiations.

Prime Minister Najib Razak also was quoted by The Star newspaper as saying police were negotiating with the gunmen "to get the group to leave peacefully to prevent bloodshed."

"We have surrounded the area and our police and armed forces have the ability to handle the matter," he was quoted as saying.

The Star's report added that a tight security ring including army and naval forces had been thrown around the "heavily armed" group.

Wednesday's statement by Ismail had said the men had surrendered when ordered and the situation was defused. The government has not yet explained the about-face.

Raul Hernandez, a spokesman for the Philippine Foreign Ministry, said Manila is trying to get information about the incident and was in touch with Kuala Lumpur.

A senior Philippine military official said navy boats and an aircraft had been sent to the border area.

He added that the Filipinos are unarmed and had been promised land in Sabah.

He said a meeting over the land claim had attracted a large crowd and drawn the attention of Malaysian authorities.

"We know that these people arrived there five days ago and most of them are from nearby islands," the official, who asked not to be identified, said.

"Some of them were already residents in Sabah for a long time and they normally cross the border without any problem."

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, meanwhile, denied the stand-off.

He said the incident is just a case of "human smuggling."

The number of illegal Muslim immigrants from the impoverished southern Philippines has surged in recent decades, stirring social tensions with indigenous Christian inhabitants in Sabah.

The Philippine government signed a landmark peace deal with Muslim rebels late last year to end a 40-year conflict in the south, but some factions have voiced opposition.

"Since Malaysia brokered the deal, followers from the Misuari Breakaway Group have decided to stir up some trouble and create fireworks in Sabah," the senior Malaysian official said, referring to a faction within the MNLF rebel group.

In 2000, a group of militants from the southern Philippines kidnapped 21 tourists from the Sabah diving resort of Sipadan. In 1985, 11 people were killed when gunmen believed to be from the southern Philippines entered Lahad Datu in Sabah, shooting at random before robbing the local branch of Standard Chartered Bank. -- with reports from Jeck Batallones, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse; Reuters