KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The Philippine foreign secretary flew to Malaysia on Monday to urge “maximum tolerance” as Kuala Lumpur rushed thousands more troops to hunt down armed Filipinos who killed eight police in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah.
Both governments are under increasing pressure to resolve the standoff which threatens to damage ties. The Southeast Asian neighbors have periodically been at odds over security and migration along their sea border.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino went on national television to urge Malaysia not to harm the interests of an estimated 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah.
Shootouts between armed members of a Filipino faction staking an ancient claim on Sabah state and Malaysian authorities have so far claimed 27 lives.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario will meet his Malaysian counterpart, Anifah Aman, in an appeal for maximum tolerance, the Philippines said.
Rosario will also seek permission for a Philippine navy vessel to be allowed to provide humanitarian, medical and consular assistance off Sabah and to take the Filipinos back to the Philippines, a statement from the Philippine department of foreign affairs said.
The Filipinos belong to a faction of followers of the sultan of Sulu, a south Philippine region, who occupied a Sabah village in February to press their claim over the Malaysian territory.
A surge in recent decades of Philippine immigrants to Sabah, many of whom work in palm oil plantations, has sparked resentment and promised to be a hot election issue even before the Sulu sultanate supporters arrived.
Sabah is a crucial state in a general election that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak must call by the end of April and which could be the closest in the country’s history.
The leader of Malaysia’s opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, criticized the government’s handling of the crisis.
“We are disappointed by the weak leadership shown by Najib Razak, the home minister and the defense minister whose responsibility it is to keep Malaysia’s security intact,” Anwar told reporters.
Reporting by Siva Sithraputhran in KUALA LUMPUR; Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in MANILA and Angie Teo in KUALA LUMPUR; Editing by Nick Macfie