The Philippines yesterday called for a peaceful end to a tense stand-off between Malaysian forces and a group of gunmen claiming to be followers of the heir of a former Borneo sultan.
The group, estimated at 200 with dozens believed to be armed, landed by boat near the town of Lahad Datu in Malaysia's Sabah state from the neighbouring Philippines on Tuesday.
The group claims to be followers of a former Philippine-based Islamic sultanate that once controlled parts of Borneo, including the stand-off site, and is refusing to leave Malaysian territory.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino's spokeswoman Abigail Valte said yesterday the safety of the Filipinos was the government's main concern as Malaysian armed forces and police had locked down the area.
"The primary concern now is their safety and to resolve the incident peacefully," Valte said in a radio interview in Manila.
She said the Philippines had received assurance from Malaysia that the government would encourage the group, which Manila has yet to identify, to leave the area peacefully.
"They demand to be acknowledged as citizens of the Sultanate of Sulu," Abdullah Kiram, a son of the Sultan of Sulu, Ismael Kiram the II, said in Manila. "They own Sabah."
Sabah police chief Hamza Taib was quoted as saying police were in negotiations with the group and expected the stand-off to be resolved "very soon with the group returning to their home country".
Malaysian police have set up a series of road blocks along the route leading from Lahad Datu through palm oil plantations to the remote village where the gunmen are.
Marine police were also patrolling the sea.
The group involved in the impasse has claimed to be adherents of the former Sulu sultanate, a regional power centre until its demise a century ago.
A Philippine military official said on Friday that the group was demanding an increase in the nominal amount that Malaysia pays, under a long-standing agreement, to the heirs of the sultanate for possession of Sabah.
Sabah has a history of incursions by armed Philippine groups.
The prickly situation could test ties between the two neighbours, which are fellow members of the Asean bloc of Southeast Asian nations.
Additional reporting by Reuters