Followers of a Philippine sultan who mysteriously arrived in the Malaysian state of Sabah this month will not leave and are reclaiming the area as their ancestral territory, the sultan said amid a tense stand-off.
Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram said his followers - some 400 people including 20 gunmen - were resolute in staying despite being cornered by security forces, with the Kuala Lumpur government insisting the group return to the Philippines.
"Why should we leave our own home? In fact they [the Malaysians] are paying rent [to us]," he said in Manila. "Our followers will stay in [the Sabah town of] Lahad Datu. Nobody will be sent to the Philippines. Sabah is our home."
The sultan did not directly threaten violence but said "there will be no turning back for us".
Malaysian officials have said that many in the group have weapons, but Kiram insisted his followers made the boat trip to Sabah unarmed. "If they have arms, they were already in Sabah," the sultan said.
The southern Philippine-based Islamic sultanate once controlled parts of Borneo, including the site of the stand-off, and its heirs have been receiving a nominal yearly compensation package from Malaysia under a colonial-era agreement for possession of Sabah.
Kiram said he was prompted to send the group to Sabah after the sultanate was left out of a framework agreement sealed in October between Manila and Filipino Muslim rebels, which paves the way for an autonomous area in the southern Philippines that is home to the Muslim minority of the largely Christian nation.
The sultanate's spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, later said the sultan's brother Raja Muda Abimuddin Kiram, who led the group to Sabah, had told him the party was preparing to stay. "The objective is to reside now in that place permanently, considering the sultanate owns Sabah by rights of sovereignty," he said.
Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein put the number of gunmen in the group at between 80 and 100.
Idjirani said the group would not instigate violence but would resist if provoked.
"We don't have the arms and capacity but we have the historical truth," he said, adding that the group's "fate is to see the recognition they are entitled to ... or they die defending their ancestral rights".
Idjirani said President Benigno Aquino's senior aides had been in contact with the sultan and were willing to deliver a letter to the Malaysian government on his behalf for negotiations.