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New clashes as Filipinos flee Sabah

Standoff leader reported alive and in hiding

Joe Torres, Manila

March 6, 2013

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Hundreds of Filipinos have fled fighting in disputed Sabah amid reports of new clashes on Wednesday between Malaysian security forces and supporters of the Sulu Sultan.

At least 280 people from western Mindanao within the Sulu Sultanate have already left and arrived back in the Philippines, said Ramon Santos, director of the Office of Civil Defense of the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi Tawi.

“[They] are not directly involved in the conflict,” he said, but had been scared away by the violence that has seen at least 27 killings since Friday, including two Filipino imams, eight Malaysian policemen and others linked to the recently ended standoff in Lahad Datu.

Malaysian news agencies reported explosions on Wednesday afternoon as Malaysian authorities continued their mopping up operations.

They also reported "several sightings" of suspected followers of Kiram in Lahad Datu and Filipino "intruders" masquerading as villagers.

Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the Sultan, said he spoke by phone on Wednesday with Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, the leader of the standoff group and younger brother of the Sultan.

"He and his men are in good condition, but they heard an exchange of gunfire between the [Malaysian] police and an unknown group," said Idjirani.

Idjirani speculated that the unidentified armed men may be reinforcements from Mindanao, a development reported in the Philippines press which would represent a further escalation of the crisis.

A senior military official who requested anonymity as he is not authorized to speak on the issue, said he doubted that reinforcements could get through with Malaysia and the Philippines working together to prevent such an escalation.

"There are 10 ships of the Philippine Navy in the area, plus corresponding ships from Malaysia. It would be very difficult to go to Sabah," he said.

Governor Saikul Sahali of Tawi Tawi said that hostilities in Sabah had meant that the flow of Malaysian goods across the Sulu Strait to Mindanao had slowed.

"That is our problem now. Most of our goods in Tawi-Tawi are from Malaysia, and we are already affected,” he said.

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