Malaysia arrests 79 in Sabah

FELDA SAHABAT, Malaysia - Malaysian police said Saturday, March 9, they had arrested 79 people in Sabah state on the island of Borneo as skirmishes to end a month-long incursion by armed Filipino Islamists left one more dead.

The death of a suspected militant in a shootout Saturday raised the toll to 61 as Malaysian authorities pursued scores of Filipino gunmen who landed in Sabah last month to resurrect long-dormant land claims.

Federal police chief Ismail Omar said operations to "flush out" the intruders were continuing, with one militant shot dead as he sought to escape a security cordon around two villages and overgrown plantation and swamp land.

"Up to now the police have arrested 79 suspects whom we believe have some links with the intrusion," he said without specifying where the suspects were seized or giving more details on them.

Ismail said Friday, March 8, that police had arrested more than 50 men and women outside the battle zone under a security law. They were being investigated for "committing terrorist acts," the New Straits Times reported.

Worst security crisis

Malaysia has vowed to end the incursion, its worst security crisis in years, and rejected a ceasefire call made by the leader of the fighters, who are followers of a Philippine sultan.

The sultan's officials say about 235 people took part in the mission to reassert a historical claim over Sabah, just a short boat ride from the southern Philippines.

Since they landed on February 12, the main group of militants had been holed up in a sleepy farming village until two deadly shootouts with security forces a week ago triggered a military assault that scattered them.

However, reports of other gunmen elsewhere along the coast have sparked fears of a wider infiltration by fighters and the possibility of sympathizers already in Malaysia helping them.

Meanwhile, Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director of Human Rights Watch said on Saturday, “The situation on the ground in the conflict zone in Sabah is still quite murky and the government of Malaysia should provide clear and accurate information on what has occurred. At this point, it’s critical that the Malaysian authorities ensure the protection of all civilians in the area, and allow humanitarian access for the provision of emergency assistance to those affected by the violence."

Robertson added, "We’re concerned about the Malaysian government’s use of the Security Offenses Special Measures Act (SOSMA) to detain reportedly more than 50 individuals, and call on the government to either charge them with a recognizable criminal offense or release them. All parties to the conflict should heed the call of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to ‘act in full respect of international human rights norms and standards.’”

Malaysian authorities say 8 policemen and 53 militants have been killed in the crisis, stirred up by Jamalul Kiram III, the supposed heir to the former southern Philippine sultanate of Sulu.

The incident has left the Southeast Asian neighbors in a prickly situation with elections in both countries to be held within months. -