Malaysian Prime Minister: “very sad over the incident;” death toll at 15

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/01 March) – Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has expressed sadness that the standoff in Lahad Datu, Sabah from February 9 ended in bloodshed.on March 1.

“I am very sad over the incident because what we had wanted to prevent, which is bloodshed, had actually happened,”  Malaysia’s The Star Online quoted the Prime Minister as saying in an article posted at 6:10 p.m. Friday.

At least 15 persons have been confirmed dead by Malaysian authorities: 12 members of  the  “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” who had holed up in Lahad Datu since February 9, and three Malaysians — two Malaysian policemen and the owner of the house where the Sulu group’s leader stayed.

The armed group that holed up in Lahad Datu was led by Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, to press for the Sultanate of Sulu’s  historic claim over Sabah.

According to the report of The Star Online, Najib also told reporters he had given “full mandate to ground commanders” —  Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Ismail Omar and the Armed Forces Chief Tan Sri Zulkefli Mohd Zin to “take … action deemed necessary.”

The Prime Minister confirmed that two police personnel were killed and three others were injured in the morning clash between Malaysian authorities and “Sulu gunmen.”

President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, who had earlier appealed to the Sultan to order his followers to leave Lahad Datu to avoid bloodshed, had yet to issue a statement although he monitored the developments on Friday while on the campaign trail in Pampanga.

In Manila, Malaysian Ambassador to the Philippines Dato Mohd Zamri Mohd Kassim informed Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario at 2 p.m. that two Malaysian police personnel were killed and one was injured.

Also killed, according to Kassim, was the owner of the house where Rajah Mudah Kiram stayed.

The Star Online also reported that in a press conference in Lahad Datu at 6 p.m. Friday, Sabah police commissioner Datuk Hamza Taib reported “12 Sulu gunmen killed.”

The names of those who were killed were not made available.

Abraham Iridjani, spokesperson of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III had earlier told a press conference  in Kiram’s house in Taguig City, Metro Manila that 10 of their members were killed while four others were injured.

The Sabah police chief said the number of injured is still unknown.

He told reporters there that  the skirmish began at 9.59 a.m. and lasted “30 minutes after five elite GOF members moved to tighten the cordon around Tanduo village where the Sulu group of about 180 including 30 gunmen led by Rajah Mudah Azzimudie Kiram had been holed up since Feb 9.”

The GOF refers to the General Operations Force, which does jungle duty and border patrol. said the slain policemen were from VAT 69, “an elite police commando unit with its roots in counter-insurgency against the communists, and which has since been re-tasked for counter-terrorism and special operations.”

Weapons recovered

The Star Online quoted  Hamza as saying that their men “stumbled upon several of the intruders who fired at them, forcing our police to return fire.”

Hamza said security forces  are holding their ground around the radius of 10 square kilometers

Kassim had informed Secretary del Rosario that 10 members of Kiram’s group had surrendered and that his group “escaped and ran towards the sea.”

The names of those surrendered were not made known.

Hamza said police recovered some of the weapons of the Sulu group. But no number of weapons was mentioned in the report.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) had earlier estimated the number of Kiram’s group at 180, “including some 30 armed escorts.”

Expanded PPOC meeting in Sulu

In Sulu, Governor Sakur Tan is convening at 9 a.m. tomorrow (Saturday)  an expanded Provincial Peace and Order Council  meeting “to ensure contingencies are in place and sobriety among Tausugs.”

“We can manage our situation here,” he told MindaNews in a text message.

On reports of possible reinforcement from Sulu for the group in Lahad Datu, he said, “I will hold back any attempt to reinforce.”

President Aquino had earlier appealed to the Sultan to order his men to leave Lahad Datu and allow for a peaceful resolution of the issue.

“ Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there are legitimate grievances, the presence of an armed group in Lahad Datu will only bring us further away from resolving these issues,” the President said in his appeal on February 26.

Malaysia had extended thrice its deadline for Kiram’s group to leave.

As of 11 p.m. Friday,  Aquino III had yet to issue a statement on what happened in Lahad Datu.  No statement had been posted on either the website of the President or the Presidential Communications Operations Office even as the latter had a report on the President’s visit to Pampanga.

The President mentioned Sabah briefly, before proceeding to deliver a campaign speech for his Team PNoy senatorial slate in Pampanga, home province of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

“May nangyayari sa Sabah”

“Pasensya na ho kayo kung kanina paakyat at baba ako ng entablado. Alam naman po ninyo may nangyayari sa Sabah. Mukhang patapos na po yung pangyayari. Syempre, hindi pa ho kumpleto ang detalye, medyo magmamadali ho tayo pabalik dahil inaasahan natin na pagdating natin sa opisina ay handa na po yung kumpletong impormasyon, alam naman po natin na yug nangyari ng may katiyakan at naaasikaso lahat ng dapat maasikaso. Pero hindi ho yun ang pakay natin ngayon. Puntahan na po natin ang talumpati.” [My apologies for going up and down the stage earlier. You know something is happening in Sabah. It appears like it’s over. But we do not have the complete details. I am rushing to go back (to Malacanang) because I expect that when I reach the office, the complete information would be ready, that we know what exactly happened and whatever needs to be attended to are attended to. But that is not my purpose here. Let us now proceed to the speech]. reported that President Aquino arrived at the rally venue in San Fernando City in Pampanga at 2 pm “but he was only able to face the crowd at around 3 p.m.”

Ten minutes later, in Manila, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokesperson, announced in a press conference that Malaysian Ambassador Kassim had informed them that the standoff  “is now over.”

“Tempered and informed statements”

In a statement, the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy (PCID) called on Malaysian authorities and Rajah Muda Agbimuddin Kiram’s followers to “immediately halt the needless violence and exercise restraint.”

The PCID statement, issued Friday by its president, Amina Rasul, a fellow Tausug like the Kirams, called on senior government officials in the Philippines to “make tempered and informed statements, without needlessly adding to the escalating tension.”

“We urgently call on the various political groups, in Malaysia and Philippines, to refrain from using this powder-keg situation for their vested interests,” Rasul said, adding the situation “can still be peacefully resolved.”

“This is the time for sobriety and for  knowledgeable and more experienced heads to intervene before more lives are lost,” she said.

The statement also quoted an appeal from former Senator Santanina Tillah Rasul, the widow of the late Sulu Sultanate Prime Minister Abraham Rasul.

She appealed to the Malaysian authorities to “refrain from using force in dealing with the followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram, but as Muslims, deal with the problem as brothers.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)