Malaysia yesterday escalated its hunt for armed Filipino invaders who dodged a military assault meant to crush them, as a Philippine guerrilla warned more fighters had arrived.
Malaysia's police chief said followers of a self-styled Muslim sultan had scattered after an air and ground attack on Tuesday on their stronghold in eastern Sabah state, aimed at ending Malaysia's worst security crisis in years.
Authorities had "expanded the operations area", Ismail Omar said in Felda Sahabat, a village about 15 kilometres from the site of the three-week stand-off.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein said security forces found the bodies of 13 Philippine Muslims as they continued searching for more than 200 insurgents.
The armed group arrived in Sabah on Borneo island from the adjacent southern Philippines on February 12, claiming it for their "sultan" and tearing open a long-dormant territorial row.
Following an initial stand-off in the sleepy farming village of Tanduo, two shootouts erupted there and in another town in recent days, which together with related violence has left 19 militants and eight police officers reported dead.
After the shootings, Malaysia on Tuesday launched an attack on Tanduo with jet fighters and soldiers.
But their leader, Jamalul Kiram III, appeared to thumb his nose at Malaysia, saying in Manila that he had just chatted by phone with his younger brother, one of the incursion's purported leaders.
"He was telling me they are eating good food, but the hard thing is they are being chased. So where will they go?" he said, declining to specify their location, but adding that they would not surrender.
Kiram, 74, is the self-proclaimed heir of the former sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled part of the southern Philippines and claimed sovereignty over Sabah.
The intruders are trying to reassert his authority there.
A leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which waged a past insurgency against the Philippine government, said hardened fighters from his Muslim group had arrived to support the militants.
Muhajab Hashim said in Manila that more were expected to join the fray, but declining to reveal numbers.