CENDERAWASIH, Malaysia: Malaysian air and ground forces launched an assault on defiant Filipino intruders on Tuesday as the government moved to end a three-week incursion that had already killed 27 people.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government had no choice but to quell Malaysia’s worst security crisis in years, sparked when militants invaded to claim the Malaysian state of Sabah for a self-styled Philippine sultan.
State news agency Bernama said F-18 and Hawk fighter jets bombed the standoff Bornean village of Tanduo, followed by “a ground assault by the army”.
“The longer this invasion lasts, it is clear to the authorities that the invaders do not intend to leave Sabah,” Najib said, adding that negotiations with the estimated 100-300 intruders had gone nowhere.
“The government must take action to safeguard the dignity and sovereignty of the country as required by the people.”
The intruders have been holed up in a farming village since landing by boat February 12 in a bizarre incursion that has exposed lax Malaysian security and the continuing threat from Islamists in the lawless southern Philippines.
At least two fighter jets were seen roaring overhead early Tuesday, followed by the thud of loud explosions, a Malaysian reporter positioned about 20 kilometres (12 miles) away told AFP by phone.
“There was a series of explosions in Tanduo. Intense bombing lasted for about half an hour,” followed by a series of sporadic blasts, he said.
A police statement said security forces were fired upon during the assault but had no immediate confirmation of any casualties.
“We’ve done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end, Kiram’s people chose this path,” said the spokesman Ricky Carandang.
After a lengthy standoff, violence erupted in Tanduo on Friday with a shootout that left 12 of the gunmen and two police officers dead.
Another gun battle Saturday in the town of Semporna, hours away by road, left six police and six gunmen dead, raising fears of a wider guerrilla infiltration from the Philippines.
Another gunman was reportedly beaten to death by Semporna residents.
However, the drama may not be over even if the Tanduo holdouts are defeated.
Authorities said at the weekend that police commandos were hunting for a group of “foreign” armed gunmen spotted in the town of Kunak on the coast. There have been no further police updates on that situation.
An AFP reporter at a police roadblock 30 kilometres from Tanduo saw military transport helicopters flying toward the village amid the assault.
Three military trucks carrying dozens of soldiers and several ambulances also sped in the direction of Tanduo, located amid vast oil palm plantations.
Followers of Kiram, the self-proclaimed heir to the Philippine sultanate of Sulu, have said the intruders were ready to die to defend his historical claim to Sabah, and have warned more militants were poised to land in the state.
The Sulu sultanate, based in the southern Philippines, once controlled parts of Borneo island including Sabah.
Its power faded about a century ago but its heirs have continued to insist on ultimate ownership of resource-rich Sabah, and still receive nominal Malaysian payments under a leasing deal originally struck by Western colonial powers.
The exact identities of the gunmen and their numbers have remained a mystery. Malaysia’s opposition has criticised authorities for providing inadequate information on the mayhem and being caught flat-footed by the invaders.
Sabah has seen small raids by Islamic militants and criminals coming by boat from the Philippines before, but nothing on the current scale.