Standoff in Sabah over; death toll unclear

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/01 March) —  “The standoff is now over.”

Quoting a report from Malaysian Ambassador to the Philipipines, Dato Mohd Zamri Mohd Kassim,  Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, spokesperson of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced in a press conference at 3:10 p.m. Friday, that the standoff in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia “is now over,” leaving three Malaysians dead, one injured and ten members of  the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo,” reportedly surrendering to Malaysian authorities.

In the press conference aired live over ANC, Hernandez said they have yet to validate reports from the family of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, that 10 of their followers were killed and four others were injured.

The armed group that holed up in Lahad Datu was led by the Sultan’s brother, Rajah Mudah (crown prince) Agbimuddin Kiram, to press for the  Sultan’s historic claim over Sabah.

Hernandez said two Malaysian policemen were killed and one was injured when their vehicle was “fired upon by Kiram’s group.”  Also killed was the owner of the house where Kiram stayed, he said.

Hernandez told reporters the information was relayed to them by Malaysian Ambassdor Kassim who met with Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario at 2 p.m.

“Malaysian authorities, particularly the police, are now pursuing (Kiram’s) group,” he said.

Kiram’s group, according to Kassim, “escaped and ran towards the sea.”

Hernandez said Secretary del Rosario had asked Kassim for a “full briefing on the operations that were conducted by the Malaysian forces in Lahad Datu as well as full access to the group of Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, to afford medical treatment to the wounded and to provide consular assistance to the rest rest of the group.”

He said the Secretary also requested clearance for Philipine Navy ship 80-296 BRP Tagbanua to proceed to Lahad Datu” to enable Philippine medical personnel aboard  to attend to the wounded and ferry them and the remaining members of their group back to their respective homes and families.“

He said the requests were stated in a note verbale handed over to Kassim.

Last Sunday, the DFA sent a ship to  Lahad Datu on a humanitarian mission.

“We are deeply concerned about the presence of five women and other civilians in the group, and we urge them to board the ship without delay and return home,”  del Rosario said then.

The DFA estimated the number of Kiram’s group at 180, “including some 30 armed escorts.”

No confirmation

Until Hernandez’ press conference, both Malaysia and the Philippine government confirmed shots were fired late Friday morning in Lahad Datu where Kiram’s group had  been holed up since February 9, but neither government confirmed any death despite media reports of deaths ranging from two to ten.

The Philippine Star in its 11:18 a.m. report posted on its website quoted Hernandez as saying that Kassim had confirmed that gunshots were fired in Lahad Datu but did not say which group fired the shots.

The report added that the Malaysian ambassador clarified there were no casualties. “There were no casualties and that the firing had already stopped,” Hernandez said, quoting Kassim’s report to Secretary del Rosario.

But Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, Malaysia’s Minister of Home Affairs, posted on his Facebook wall at around 1 p.m. this message: “Lahad Datu – I confirm that our security forces have not taken a single shot but were shot at 10 am this morning!”

Quoting the spokesperson of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III,  the Manila-based DZMM Radyo Patrol posted on its website at 1:23 p.m. that at least 10 Filipinos holed up in Lahad Datu, including a woman, were killed while four others were wounded after  Malaysian police reportedly fired on them.

But the Malaysian newspaper, The Star Online, in a report datelined Lahad Datu and posted on its website at 1:02 p.m. Friday said “at least two Sulu gunmen are believed killed and three policemen injured in an encounter in Tanduo village this morning.”

The Star Online Report said “first reports emerging from Tanduo village, the three injured cops were being airlifted to Sandakan.”

“As of 12.45 pm, villagers say they were still hearing gunshots,” The Star Online said.

The report said Malaysian security forces “have yet to confirm the first reports emerging from gunfire heard at Tanduo village from about 11 am Friday” and Malaysian police have also “declined to comment if the gunfire was the start of a move against the gunmen.”

In Metro Manila, GMA News Online in its 12:10 p.m. update reported that Rajah Muda Kiram, in an interview over its sister radio station, DZBB at around 10 a.m. claimed they were shot at and had to “defend” themselves.

“Biglang pumasok sa amin, we had to defend ourselves,” GMA News quoted him as saying.

Schools, shops closed

The Star Online in Malaysia also reported that as word of the shooting filtered out, “parents in Lahad Datu and surrounding Felda Sahabat oil palm plantations and nearby Tungku, rushed to pick up their children, forcing schools to close.”

“Many shops in Lahad Datu town about 165 kms away from Felda Sahabat 17 had also closed” and that at the entrance to Felda Sahabat 17 where the Sulu group is holed up there  (is a) heavy security presence with at least two ambulances of standby with a medical team.”

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, in a report posted on The Star Online at 12:41 p.m. Friday, urged the followers of the Sulu Sultan to leave before action is taken to force them out.

“The Prime Minister said the longer they stay in Sabah, the more dangerous the situation would be for them,” the report said.

He told reporters after launching the Rural Transformation Centre in Pekan that Kiram’s group “must realize that what they are doing is a serious offence and I hope they will accept the offer to leave peacefully as soon as possible.”

President Benigno Simeon Aquino III appealed to Sultan Jamalul Kiram III on February 26 to recall his followers to allow for a peaceful resolution of the issue.

The President made his appeal in a press conference with the Malacanang Press Corps.

“And so this is my appeal to you: These are your people, and it behooves you to recall them. It must be clear to you that this small group of people will not succeed in addressing your grievances, and that there is no way that force can achieve your aims,” the President said.

“You are a leader of your clan, and every leader seeks the well-being of his constituents. These times require you to use your influence to prevail on our countrymen to desist from this hopeless cause,” he said, adding that “what is clear is that a peaceful resolution of this issue is to everybody’s interest.”

“ 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. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)