MANILA (3rd UPDATE) – Malaysian forces have opened fire at the royal army of the Sultanate of Sulu in Sabah, Malaysia, the sultanate's spokesperson confirmed on Friday.
Abraham Idjirani, speaking to ANC, said: "The first shot was done by the Malaysian police authorities. And as been said by (crown prince) Datu Raja Muda (Agbimuddin Kiram), if that happens wala na silang option except to fire back."
"There was an exchange of fire," he added.
Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram told DZRH they have been surrounded by Malaysian authorities. He said at least one of their group had been wounded in the firefight.
"Nagbabarilan na! Mayroon ng tinamaan sa amin, isang wounded," he said.
"Putukan na rito. We are surrounded! Tapos na ang salita, Tapos na ang salita! We will fight today."
Princess Fatima Kiram, wife of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, said she received unconfirmed reports that Malaysian authorities have arrested Kiram, the leader of the group in Lahad Datu.
She said that before the encounter, the Malaysian police were only 200 meters away from the group of Kiram.
"Lahat nanduon sa paligid nila," she told radio dzMM.
She said Kiram's group had been preparing for the attack after authorities distributed leaflets demanding that the group leave Lahad Datu.
A report by Henry Omaga-Diaz of ABS-CBN News, meanwhile, said that some followers of the sultanate died during the gunfight.
Omaga-Diaz reported that the Malaysian government's National Security Council has already taken over the situation.
He said Malaysian police and special forces were in the area where Kiram and the royal army are staying.
Idjirani said the details on the gunfight that occurred roughly around 10:30 a.m., the first major one to occur since the standoff began on February 12, remain sketchy as of the moment.
"Narinig natin, through monitoring of TV networks, narinig natin ang boses ni Rajah Muda. Siguro gumanti na because there was already an exchange of fire," he said.
"Sketchy reports pa kaya nga we appeal to the Filipino people na tulungan tayo magdasal sa pangyayaring ito. We are hoping na sana matigil because as publicly, officially declared by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, all we are hoping is attainment of peaceful resolution regarding this standoff in Sabah."
Asked whether the sultanate will now seek the help of the Philippine government, Idjirani said: "Wala pa kaming maiiisip na paraan because in the previous days, laging sinasabi ng Malacanang na walang sisihan kunn sasa-sakaling mangyari ito.
"There seemed to be some kind of apprehension on the part of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo kung sakaling hihingi ng intercession from the Philippine government."
Idjirani also claimed that before the gunfight occurred, the crown prince had told residents and his followers in Lahad Datu that they are free to evacuate.
"Iyung sumama doon ay mga followers ng sultanate. So tinanong ni Raja Muda, voluntary act kung sino-sino sa kanila ang gustong lumisan, they are free to do that. Ang laging sinasabi ng followers, 'whatever happened, tayo ay magsama-sama,'" he said.
"Matagal na pinaaalis ni Raja Muda, kasi alam niya umiinit na ang issue. Para walang masaktang sibilyan ay kanyang pinalikas na sa lugar na kinaroroonan nila."
Sultan still won't order pullout
Idjirani said Sultan Jamalul Kiram is saddened with the latest development.
"Well, siyempre the Sultan of Sulu is saddened by the news although of course the stand is that the Sultan of Sulu is stay put sila doon. Pero iyun nga, nangyari na, inaasahan natin sana magkaroon ang bawat isa sa dalawang panig ng kanilang simpataya sa isa't isa," he said.
"Ang laging sinasabi natin, pag-usapan natin ito so we can adopt whatever mechanisms acceptable to both parties pero wala ring nangyari. Walang utos si Sultan Jamalul Kiram III expect that Raja Muda would say they will fight to the last breath of their life. Huwag lang kayong mag-umpisa ng first putok."
Idjirani said that prior to the gunfight, they were on their way to the Malaysian embassy in Manila to hold talks on the standoff at the suggestion of a "sympathetic negotiator."
"Last night, merong emissary or I would say a sympathetic negotiator proposing to Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to at least convey the message to the embassy of Malaysia in Makati. This morning while we were on our way to the embassy, naitawag sa amin na meron na ngang engagement ang Malaysian forces at ang mga tauhan ni Raja Muda," he said.
On Wednesday, at least six Malaysian security forces armed with rifles entered the royal army's camp. The crown prince said this prompted the royal army to fire a warning shot to alert the sultanate's followers of the presence of the Malaysian forces.
The sultanate wants that a formal agreement recognizing their Sabah claim, brokered by Manila, be reached with Kuala Lumpur.
Manila, however, said the sultanate's condition is unacceptable.
It even warned members of the sultanate of possible criminal charges as a result of their decision to enter a foreign territory while bearing firearms.
The sultanate of Sulu is citing historical accounts as basis for its claim.
Sabah was given to the Sultanate of Sulu by the Sultanate of Brunei due to the former's help in quelling a rebellion during the 17th century.
In 1878, the Sultanate of Sulu leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Company. Britain eventually annexed Sabah in 1946. The disputed territory was then turned over by Britain to the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.