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Death toll rises as Sabah tensions spread

Weekend violence rages over disputed land

Joe Torres, Manila

March 4, 2013

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The Philippines government confirmed on Monday that 11 supporters of Jamalul Kiram III, the self-professed Sulu Sultan, were killed in clashes in Sabah on Saturday. Five Malaysian policemen also died as violence spread to other parts from the scene of the near-month long standoff in Lahad Datu.

Two Filipino imams from Tawi Tawi and Sulu, both within the sultanate, and their four children were reported among those killed in a raid by Malaysian security forces late on Saturday in Semporna, 304 kilometers south of Lahad Datu, said the sultan’s spokesman Abraham Idjirani.

Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said in a press conference on Monday that the situation in Semporma is already "under control."

"The loss of lives in Sabah is deeply regrettable," said Hernandez. "Malaysia and the Philippines share the same objective of preventing further loss of lives."

Following Friday’s shootout between supporters of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and Malaysian security forces, the death toll is now at least 28 since the standoff began on February 9.

“The Malaysians are raising the conflict,” said Idjirani, accusing Malaysia of “un-Islamic” behavior by starting to kill the sultan’s followers just hours before the region’s millions of Muslims attended Friday prayers.

On Monday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario met with Malaysian ambassador Mohammad Zamri Kassim to hand a written request to the Malaysian government "to exercise maximum tolerance" in addressing the tensions in Sabah.

Del Rosario also requested the Malaysians to permit a Philippines navy ship clearance to proceed to Lahad Datu to deliver humanitarian and consular assistance to Filipinos there and to ferry home the sultan's followers.

The foreign secretary repeated calls for the sultan’s men to "surrender peacefully" as he later flew to Kuala Lumpur on Monday to continue discussions “to avert further loss of lives.”

Accusing the government of abandoning them, the sultan and his inner circle have sent letters to the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the UK government, calling for third party intervention.

As the then colonial ruler of Malaya, the UK was directly involved in the late 19th-century transaction which has led to the dispute over administration of northern Borneo, the eastern half of the Malaysian province of Sabah.

“What we want is an agreement [with the government] on how to deal with the Sabah issue,” said Fatima Cecilia Kiram, wife of the Sulu sultan.  

The Moro National Liberation Front, an Islamic ceasefire group which retains men and arms in areas within the Sulu Sultanate, backed calls on Monday for the UN and OIC to intervene.

Meanwhile, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), another rebel group currently involved in peace negotiations with the government, refused to be drawn on the Sabah issue.

Malaysia is acting as a peace broker in the ongoing talks between the MILF and the government, which the MNLF and the sultan have said remain too exclusive.

Kiram is thought to have dispatched his supporters to Sabah after the new peace framework omitted reference to the territorial dispute.  

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