(Recasts with higher death toll)
By Angie Teo
FELDA SAHABAT, Malaysia, March 7 Malaysian
security forces said they killed 31 Filipino militants in
overnight clashes in eastern Sabah state as Prime Minister Najib
Razak rejected a ceasefire offer from the armed group staking an
ancient claim to the resource-rich region.
At least 52 militants and eight Malaysian policeman have
died in clashes that began in the northern tip of Borneo island
last Friday and intensified into an all-out assault by army
troops early this week.
Security officials said many militants escaped the military
attacks aimed at a coastal village where they had been holed up
for weeks. The obscure group is believed to be at large in
surrounding oil palm estates.
"We want the militants to unconditionally surrender and hand
over their weapons," Najib said in his first trip to the
conflict area since the standoff began a month ago.
If they did not surrender, Najib said the military would
continue to track them down "for as long as it takes to
Malaysia's police chief, Ismail Omar, addressing a separate
news conference, announced the toll of 31 militants killed in
the latest clashes.
"We've narrowed it to two village areas," Omar told
reporters, referring to two settlements close to the site of the
initial military attack.
The month-old confrontation in Sabah was sparked when the
armed group numbering about 200 arrived from the nearby southern
Philippines to press an old claim to the resource-rich region.
The conflict has strained relations between the Southeast
Asian neighbours 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.
The group is demanding recognition and an increased payment
from Malaysia for their claim as the rightful owners of Sabah,
part of Borneo island leased by the sultanate to British
colonialists in the 19th century.
Malaysia has refused the demands and Manila has repeatedly
told the group to put down its weapons and come home.
Najib said he had conveyed Malaysia's position to Philippine
President Benigno Aquino by telephone. Aquino has said he
suspects his country's opposition backed the group in an attempt
to undermine him ahead of congressional elections in May.
The self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III,
offered a unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day.
"We hope Malaysia will reciprocate this gesture," Abraham
Idjirani, the sultan's spokesman, said in Manila.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called for an end to the
violence and talks for a peaceful resolution.
(Reporting by Angie Teo and Manny Mogato in Manila; Writing by
Siva Sithraputhran; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Ron Popeski)