FELDA SAHABAT, Malaysia, March 6 (Reuters) - Malaysian soldiers expanded their hunt for elusive Philippine militants on Borneo island on Wednesday, a day after an all-out assault with fighter jets, mortars and hundreds of troops failed to end the security crisis.
The nearly month-long confrontation in Sabah state was sparked when gunmen sailed from the nearby southern Philippines to press an ancient claim to the resource-rich region.
Clashes killed at least 27 people including eight Malaysian policemen in the days leading up to the assault, raising concerns of broader insecurity ahead of elections in Malaysia.
Malaysian police said one gunman was shot on Wednesday, and warned residents to be on alert for members of the group who had likely escaped into palm-oil plantations that dominate the coastal area and who could be posing as farmers. It was unclear if the gunman had been killed.
“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.”
On Wednesday, army trucks carrying dozens of soldiers continued to enter the village of Kampung Tanduo where the group had originally been holed up, while 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, which numbers close to 200, to return home.
The group claims to represent the now defunct sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines and is demanding recognition and payment from Malaysia for their claim as rightful owners of Sabah.
Allies of the sultanate 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.
The family in Manila also claimed that more followers had arrived to reinforce the group, a journey between the Southeast Asian neighbours that takes around an hour by speedboat.
Malaysian officials said on Tuesday their forces suffered no casualties but gave no details on the fate of the Filipinos. Their allies in Manila had claimed many had survived and were still resisting.
The security headache 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 in Kuala Lumpur, Editing by Dean Yates; Manuel Mogato and Rosemarie Francisco in Manila; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Dean Yates)