DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/05 March) — Invoking the need to “safeguard the dignity and sovereignty of the nation as demanded by the rakyat (people),” Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced in a statement Tuesday morning that aerial and ground attacks have been launched to flush out the “intruders” from Lahad Datu in Sabah.
Malaysiakini.com reported at 8:28 a.m. that the Prime Minister announced that security forces “have launched an operation to apprehend the armed intruders at Kampung Tanduo at 7 a.m. today.”
“As a peace-loving Muslim country that upholds the resolution of conflicts through negotiation, our efforts to avoid bloodshed were unsuccessful. Instead, our security forces were attacked and slain, while Malaysians especially those in Sabah fear for their safety,” the Prime Minister said.
“The government must take appropriate action to safeguard the dignity and sovereignty of the nation as demanded by the rakyat (people),” he said.
Malaysia has been facilitating the peace process between the Philippine government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) since March 2001.
The Malaysian Prime Prime Minister witnessed the signing in Malacanang of the GPH-MILF Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro on October 15 last year.
Tuesday’s attacks came hours after Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario who flew to Kuala Lumpur late Monday, met with the Malaysian Foreign Affairs and Defense ministers. ABS-CBN News Channel’s Ces Drilon reported the closed-door meeting started at 1 a.m. and ended at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Four hours and thirty minutes after the meeting ended, the attacks were launched.
Early morning headlines of a number of Malaysian online papers read: “Fighter jets bomb Kg Tanduo, villagers flee area,” (Malaysiakini.com), “Malaysian security forces in all out attack against Sulu gunmen” (The Star Online), “Security forces launch offensive against armed intruders in Sabah” (state-owned Bernama news agency).
The Prime Minister said that following the armed intrusion in Lahad Datu on Feb 12, the government adopted maximum tolerance to avoid bloodshed.
He said he warned after the first attack on Friday that “the intruders must surrender themselves or the security authorities will have to act.”
He noted that the police “held meetings and negotiations in the hope that the intruders would agree to leave peacefully without the need to take any serious legal action” and that “as the issue of the intrusion prolonged, it was evident to the authorities that the intruders had no intention of withdrawing from Sabah.”
Calling itself the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo,” the group that holed up in Lahad Datu for three weeks until the standoff was declared over on Friday is led by Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, purportedly to press for the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim over Sabah.
Najib had hinted on Tuesday’s attacks through his tweet at 6:49 p.m. on Monday: “Let’s unite behind our brave security forces and hope this situation can be resolved soon. Safety of Sabahans is our priority.”
At 12:25 noon on Tuesday, Najib again tweeted, in Bahasa Malaysia: “Praise be to God, I have been informed that the operation went as expected – in the process of apprehending from house to house.”
In Manila, Secretary Ricky Carandang of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office said on Tuesday morning: “We’ve done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end, Kiram’s people chose this path.”
Tuesday’s attacks came hours after the Aquino administration dispatched diplomatic missions to Kuala Lumpur and Sabah, in last-ditch efforts to avert further loss of lives.
At least 27 persons from Kiram’s group and the Malaysian police had been killed as of Sunday.
The Department of Foreign Affairs’s website on Monday announced that Foreign Affairs Secretary del Rosario was leaving for Kuala Lumpur that afternoon to meet with the Malaysian Foreign Minister “to continue discussions on how to avert further loss of lives” and to appeal to Malaysian authorities “to exercise maximum tolerance” in dealing with the remaining members of the armed group led by the brother of the Sultan of Sulu who had earlier holed up in Lahad Datu, Sabah.
In Lahad Datu on Monday afternoon, Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia Eduardo Malaya and Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Jose Brilliantes met with Malaysian Defense Minister Dato’ Seri Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Home Minister Datuk Seri Panglima Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein “to explore ways to achieve a peaceful resolution” of the crisis, the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur said in a press statement.
Brilliantes, who served as Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia a decade ago, and Malaya were ”on a consular humanitarian mission in Sabah.”
They were also present in the midnight meeting between the heads of the Foreign affairs departments of the Philippines and Malaysia.
In Petaling Jaya, Malaysia’s The Star Online quoted Deputy Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar that Kiram’s men are considered “terrorists,” hence the police are put in charge of the operations in Lahad Datu and other parts of Sabah.
“The Sulu gunmen do not belong to any government, thus their actions are not considered as an invasion by a foreign country,” Khalid said, adding the actions of the gunmen were “hostile acts of armed terrorists.”
Khalid said the police were working together with the Armed Forces to ensure the safety of all Malaysians.
In Taguig City, Abraham Idjirani, spokesperson of the Sultan, told a press conference that Rajah Muda Kiram had communicated with them that they are safe and are away from the bombing sites.
In Mindanao, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has beefed up security for all team sites of the 55-member Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team in five cities in Mindanao “for precautionary measures.”
Brig. Gen. Leo Ferrer, the senior military adviser of the government peace panel in the negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told MindaNews on Monday afternoon that since March 1, all team sites, including the IMT headquarters in Cotabato City “were augmented with force protection units from the AFP.” (see separate story)
On Saturday, President Aquino called for the unconditional surrender of the Kiram group.
“If you have grievances, the path you chose was wrong. The just, and indeed, the only correct thing for you to do is to surrender,” he said.
On Monday, he said the only way to end the Sabah crisis is for all parties to exercise calm, restraint, and come to the table together with open minds for “reasonable dialogue” to commence.
He told a press conference that the the clan of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III could not have gone to Lahad Datu on their own.
He warned the financiers behind the Sultan that they would not succeed and that they would be held accountable for their crime against the nation.
The Sultan’s daughter, Jacel, denied there are groups financing them. In an interview over ANC’s Talkback on Monday evening, she challenged the President to prove the allegations. (Carolyn O. Arguillas)