52 Filipinos killed in Sabah crisis, Malaysia says
MANILA (3rd UPDATE) - Fifty-two supporters of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III have been killed since the standoff began over 3 weeks ago, Malaysia's police chief said Thursday.
In the last 24 hours alone, Malaysian troops shot and killed 32 followers of the sultan, according to Malaysia's police chief Ismail Omar.
The fatalities included "high-ranking general," Ismail claimed.
He did not identify the alleged general, according to Malaysian news website The Star Online.
"As of now, the death toll among the Sulu intruders stands at 52. At this point of time no further information can be given," Ismail told media.
A total of 31 were killed in Kampung Tanjung Batu while another was shot dead in Kampung Tanduo, he said.
"Our operations have gone into new territories. Initially we were in Kampung Tanduo, now into Tanjung Batu and Tanjung Labian," he added.
Eight Malaysian policemen died in earlier skirmishes.
Troops and police are currently hunting the remnants in a remote region of Borneo island, where they landed last month to assert a long-dormant territorial claim in what has become Malaysia's worst security crisis in years.
A spokesman for the Manila-based sultan, who called for a midday ceasefire, said 235 people including eight women took part in the original incursion.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, who flew to the region Thursday to inspect security operations, said he told Philippine President Benigno Aquino by phone the ceasefire offer was rejected.
"I told President Aquino they must lay down their arms immediately," Najib told reporters in a village near where the army and police were searching for scores of militants.
"They have to surrender their arms and they have to do it as soon as possible."
Kiram declared a unilateral ceasefire for 12:30 pm (0430 GMT) and urged Malaysia to reciprocate.
Kiram says he is heir to the Sultanate of Sulu, which once ruled islands that are now part of the southern Philippines as well as Sabah.
But Najib said Malaysian forces would press on with the offensive, sending more soldiers into the hilly region of vast oil palm estates and pockets of jungle.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said late Wednesday that his government might seek Kiram's extradition if Manila failed to take action. But the Philippine government said that was unlikely, citing the lack of an extradition treaty.
Malaysia launched an air and ground assault on Kiram's supporters Tuesday after a two-week standoff.
Security officials say many of the militants likely escaped Tuesday's attack and are still at large.
"We want the militants to unconditionally surrender and hand over their weapons," Najib told a news conference at the Felda Sahabat palm oil plantation in Sabah, making his first trip to the conflict area since the standoff began a month ago.
If they do not surrender, Najib said the military would continue to track them down "for as long as it takes to eliminate them."
Razak also announced formation of a "special security area" comprising Kunak, Tawau, Lahad Datu, Sandakan and Semporna in Sabah, according to state news agency Bernama.
The confrontation in Sabah in Malaysia's part of Borneo island was sparked when the armed group arrived from the nearby southern Philippines to press an old claim to the resource-rich region.
It has strained relations between the Southeast Asian neighbors and prompted speculation that Najib may delay a national election he had been expected to call as early as March and which must be held by June.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged a peaceful resolution of the bizarre incursion.
"(Ban) urges an end to the violence and encourages dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation," said a statement released by his office late Wednesday. - with reports from Agence France-Presse, Reuters