Sultan of Sulu loyalists escape Malaysia military assault, group says
Malaysia's police chief says soldiers following up large-scale air and ground assault on Sabah's invaders have yet to find any bodies
Agence France-Presse in Felda Sahabat
Malaysia's military yesterday launched a fierce assault, including the use of jet fighters, on up to 300 Filipino intruders after a three-week stand-off, but the militants' supporters said they escaped and were alive and well.
The national police chief also raised doubts about the success of the air and ground attack, saying "mopping up" operations had yet to find any bodies. That suggested at least some of the militants might have slipped away.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he had no choice but to unleash the military to end Malaysia's biggest security crisis in years after the interlopers refused to surrender and 27 people were killed.
A day after the Philippines called for restraint, Malaysia launched a dawn assault on the estimated 100 to 300 gunmen in Lahad Datu district on Borneo island, who claim the Malaysian territory on behalf of a former Philippine sultanate.
Fighter jets bombed the stand-off village of Tanduo in Sabah state on the northern tip of Borneo, followed by a ground assault.
"The longer this invasion lasts, it is clear to the authorities that the invaders do not intend to leave Sabah," Najib said.
But Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the sultan, Jamalul Kiram III, said the attack had occurred "away from where" their men were, saying he spoke with the leader of the armed group about eight hours after the assault was launched.
Hours after the initial attack, Malaysian federal police chief Ismail Omar said soldiers combing a wide area of hilly plantation country had yet to find any dead militants. "I have instructed my commanders to be on alert because we believe the enemies are still out there," Ismail said.
Last night, Hong Kong issued an amber travel alert for Sabah, warning residents to be cautious and monitor the situation.
The crisis comes just as Malaysia's 56-year-old ruling coalition is bracing for what are widely expected to be the closest elections against strong opposition, which has harshly criticised the handling of the incursion.
Jamalul Kiram III, 75, a self-proclaimed sultan and leader of the insurgents, said earlier in Manila that the invaders, among them his younger brother, "will fight to the last man".
Malaysia has been shocked by the bold stunt of those who claim to be asserting Jamalul's ancestral control of Sabah.
Violence erupted in Tanduo on Friday with a shoot-out that left 12 of the gunmen and two police officers dead. Another gunbattle on Saturday in the town of Semporna, hours away by road, killed six police and six gunmen.
Members of Philippine Muslim rebel group the Moro National Liberation Front, who had agreed to disarm in the 1990s and renounce its claim over Sabah as part of a peace pact, are also involved in deadly battles in Malaysia, the group's leader said.
The Philippines said its navy had stopped 70 more people from getting across the sea border to help the militants.