(Clarifies official account of death toll in 4th paragraph)
By Bazuki Muhammad
FELDA SAHABAT, Malaysia, March 6 Malaysian
security forces found 13 bodies of suspected Philippine
militants as they expanded their hunt for an elusive armed group
on the island of Borneo on Wednesday, a day after an assault
with fighter jets, mortars and hundreds of troops.
The nearly month-long confrontation in Sabah state, in
Malaysia's part of Borneo, was sparked when the armed group of
about 200 sailed from the nearby southern Philippines to press
an ancient claim to the resource-rich region.
"The total is 13. There could be more," Malaysian Defence
Minister Zahid Hamidi told reporters at a media centre set up at
the palm oil plantation of Felda Sahabat.
It was unclear if the bodies found on Wednesday had been
killed in Tuesday's massive assault or included some of the 19
militants that Malaysian officials said had been killed over the
weekend. At least 27 people, including eight Malaysian
policemen, have been killed since Friday's first clash.
Zahid, who produced what he described as pictures of some of
the dead militants, said Malaysian forces had suffered no fresh
casualties since the assault was launched on Tuesday.
Malaysian police warned residents to be on alert for members
of the group who had escaped into plantations that dominate the
coastal area and who could be posing as farmers.
Security forces clashed with suspected militants in three
separate locations on Wednesday, state news agency Bernama said,
with one gunman shot and believed to be dead.
"The mopping and searching will cover a wider area given
there are signs the intruders moved to another location," police
inspector-general Ismail Omar told reporters.
"The security forces are tracking down their movements and
will take the appropriate action."
FIGHTERS WILL NOT RETURN HOME: SPOKESMAN
Allies of the group in Manila said they had been in
telephone contact with Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, the
militants' leader and the brother of the self-proclaimed sultan,
who said the group had split up to avoid detection.
Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the group, told Reuters
that 10 of the sultan's followers had died in total, with 10
captured and four wounded.
"They will not come home and would rather die fighting if
cornered," he said of the remaining followers in Sabah.
The family in Manila also said more followers had arrived to
reinforce the group, a journey between the Southeast Asian
neighbours that takes around an hour by speedboat.
Army trucks carrying dozens of soldiers continued to enter
the village of Kampung Tanduo where the group had originally
been holed up. A helicopter hovered overhead.
Fighter jets bombed the group's camp in the Felda Sahabat
plantation early on Tuesday after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib
Razak said his patience had run out. Philippine officials had
urged the group to return home.
The group says it represents the now defunct sultanate of
Sulu in the southern Philippines and demands recognition and
payment from Malaysia due to their claim to be rightful owners
The security headache has strained ties between the
Philippines and Malaysia and could prompt Najib to delay an
election that must be held by June, adding to nervousness among
investors over what could be the country's closest ever polls.
The insecurity has disrupted operations in Sabah's huge palm
oil industry. Prolonged trouble could dampen growing investor
interest in energy and infrastructure projects in the state,
although the main oil fields are far from the standoff.
(Additional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage and Siva
Sithraputhran in Kuala Lumpur, Angie Teo in Felda Sahabat and
Manuel Mogato and Rosemarie Francisco in Manila; Writing by
Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Jon Hemming)