THE crisis in Sabah has turned several towns into battle zones as Malaysia intensified its campaign to drive away armed Filipino intruders.
The crisis took a turn for the worse as the fighting spread to more areas after the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) joined the fray by deploying its combatants to Sabah to support the sultanate of Sulu.
The sultanate had started calling the clashes in Sabah the Sultan Jamalul Kiram Spring, after the Arab Spring, which triggered revolutions and violent protests in several Arab countries in 2010.
According to Abraham Idjirani, the spokesman of sultan Jamalul Kiram 3rd, the fighting between Malaysian forces and members of the Sulu Royal Army has reached Sandakan, Sabah’s second largest city.
“This is the Sultanate Jamalul Kiram Spring. We are doing this in the name of the Filipino people,” Idjirani told reporters.
Idjirani said that as of Sunday, Sandakan has been turned into another battle zone even as the “battle of Semporna” remains at a stalemate.
To prevent further loss of lives, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario flew to Kuala Lumpur on Monday to talk with Malaysian officials and appeal for maximum tolerance for the followers of the sultan.
Seven people were reported killed in a clash in the town of Semporna on Saturday as Malaysian policemen were also pursuing a number of armed intruders in the town of Kunak. Reports said that Semporna has turned into a ghost town after the firefight on Saturday because residents fled the area for fear that they too may be caught in the gun fight.
The MNLF claimed that their men were able to enter Sabah on Sunday.
The group said that reinforcements from Mindanao breached the Malaysian security cordon in Sandakan and ambushed two truckloads of men belonging to the Malaysian Territorial Army Regiment.
“The reinforcements were able to wipe them out,” said Habib Mujahab Hashim, chairman of the MNLF’S Islamic Command Council. Idjirani, however, denied that the Royal Sulu Army is being aided by MNLF fighters.
He claimed that the escalation of violence was an “unorganized, spontaneous uprising” by Filipinos residing in Sabah.
Fighting between the two sides have left 26 people dead since the standoff begun last month.
During the firefight on Saturday, the sultan’s followers captured four Malaysian officials.
Idjirani, however, said that the captives will only be released to representatives of international humanitarian groups.
He explained that the group led by the sultan’s brother, Raja Muda Agbimuddin, refused to release their captives to Sabah officials because they fear that the officials might later end up dead and the sultanate will be blamed for it.
Idjirani also said that the sultan was able to reestablish contact with Raja Muda a day after Malaysian officials shut down cell sites in Lahad Datu.
Fearing that the fighting in Sabah will lead to more deaths, del Rosario flew to Kuala Lumpur on Monday to appeal for maximum tolerance for the followers of the sultan.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said that the secretary will meet with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman “to continue discussions on how to avert further loss of lives.”
Del Rosario will also convey the Philippine government’s request for a full briefing from the Malaysian authorities regarding the situation in Lahad Datu and ask clearance for the Philippine Navy ship, BRP Tagbanua, to proceed to Lahad Datu.
The ship, which was dispatched from Tawi-Tawi province more than a week ago, has medical personnel onboard.
“Ever since the Kiram group landed in Lahad Datu three weeks ago, Secretary del Rosario has been in touch with the Malaysian authorities on a daily basis in search for a peaceful resolution to the situation,” the department said.
Meanwhile, ground troops and at least 10 Philippine Navy ships have secured the island provinces and islets and the entire sea separating Mindanao from Malaysia to prevent the supporters, followers and members of the so-called Royal Army of Sulu from traveling to Sabah.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Monday explained that the security cordon was implemented to ensure that nobody would be able to cross to Sabah. He denied reports that speedboats and small-motorized vessels have slipped past the closely guarded areas.
Gazmin said that Philippines troops cannot be involved in the flushing out of Filipino intruders in Sabah.
“We cannot get involved. It’s the call of the Malaysian government,” he said.
The President’s directive, he said, is to help the evacuees and at the same time identify those involved in the standoff.
As the Sabah crisis sizzled, 289 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Malaysia returned home to escape the clashes in Sabah.
Labor Secretary Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz said that the workers came home on Sunday.
Baldoz said that she instructed various Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) agencies to assist the returning Filipino workers.
The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration has been told to assist returnees, who plan to stay in the country for good, by providing reintegration assistance through the National Reintegration Center for overseas Filipino workers.
The reintegration program includes providing job matching and job referral assistance for those who will elect to work in the country; and giving out of livelihood business starter kits for those who wish to engage in businesses.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration had also been instructed to assist the workers who wish to go back to their employers in Malaysia after the situation has normalized.
“The DOLE helped facilitate their smooth arrival, and we are ready with our reintegration programs and other services for other Filipinos, who may decide to return to the country either for good or to wait for the situation to stabilize before returning to Sabah,” the labor chief said.
The Bureau of Immigration also on Monday said that 288 Filipinos were deported from Sabah.
Immigration Intelligence chief Antonette Mangrobang said that they are waiting for an official report from their Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga field office. She said that more Filipinos are expected to return from Malaysia because of the crisis there.
Meanwhile, Cebu Pacific Air flights from Manila to Kota Kinabalu have not been affected by the standoff.
According to Cebu Pacific communications manager MP.Pestano-Fojas, all CEB flights to Kota Kinabalu are normal.
With reports from Johanna M. Sampan, William B. Depasupil and Benjie L. Vergara