Mar 1, 2013

Sabah conflict: 10 Pinoys killed or no casualties?

While the camp of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III on Friday noon claimed that 10 Filipinos holed up at a village in Sabah had been killed, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Friday denied these reports.

The DFA said there were no Filipino casualties in a reported gunfight between the followers of a royal Muslim clan and Malaysian authorities in Sabah.

“We have talked to the Malaysian ambassador who confirmed that there was firing in Lahad Datu this morning. He likewise said that there are no casualties and that the firing had stopped,” DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said.

GMA News reporter Maki Pulido, who is in Sabah covering the standoff, however said she saw two bodies in a military vehicle.

"I saw 2 bodies with faces covered on floor of a military truck that came from Tanduao, Sabah," she said on Twitter.

In an interview aired over GMA News TV's Balitanghali, Hernandez said that the firing has ended and that there were no casualties.

"[Ayon sa impormasyon na] binigay sa amin ng ambassador [ng Malaysia], merong nangyaring firing earlier pero walang mga casualties at yung firing na yan ay huminto na, wala nang putukan," he said.

But he said the Malaysian ambassador did not inform him why and when the firefight began.

"We are hoping to get more details on this later," he said.

"Importante sa atin na matiyak ang kaligtasan ng ating mga kababayan doon sa Lahad Datu kaya patuloy tayong umaapila kay Sultan Jumalul na hikayatin na ang kanyang mga tauhan na kusang umuwi na sa kani-kanilang mga pamilya at tahanan sa Mindanao," he added.

Who fired first?

Hernandez said the DFA is still verifying who fired the first shot.

On the other hand, a ranking Malaysian government official on Friday afternoon contested the claim of the Sulu Sultan's camp that Malaysian security forces fired at them, saying it was the other way around.

In a post on his Twitter account, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said it was the Filipinos who fired at the Malaysian forces.

"(On) Lahad Datu, I confirm that our security forces have not taken a single shot but were shot at at 10 a.m. this morning!" he said.

Hishammuddin also said there had been "no deaths" as of Friday. "That I can confirm. No deaths," Malaysia's The Star online quoted him as saying.

Sultan's camp

A spokesman for the group of armed Filipinos has said 10 members of the group had been killed when police raided their camp.

Sultan of Sulu Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram sent the group, who are locked in a tense standoff with Malaysian forces, on Feb. 9 to the resource-rich territory they claim as their own, creating a diplomatic crisis between Manila and Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia regards the group as intruders.

Sabah, located south of Mindanao, is territorially disputed by the Philippines and Malaysia. A Philippine claim for sovereignty over Sabah has lain dormant for decades, but Malaysia continues to pay a yearly rent to the heirs of Sultan of Sulu, who claim to be the descendants of the original Filipino sultan who had control over the territory for centuries.

But the Malaysian home minister denied that police had fired a shot and the Philippine government said it had received no reports of casualties among the group, who are followers of the Sultanate of Sulu, in the southern Philippines.

The standoff with police has threatened to spark tension between the Philippines and Malaysia, whose ties have been periodically frayed by security and migration problems along their sea border. Both governments have urged the group to return home.

Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the group, told reporters in Manila that 10 members of the group had been killed and four wounded when Malaysian police raided the village where they have been holed up for more than two weeks.

Malaysia's The Star newspaper reported that at least two gunmen had been killed and three police officers wounded as of 1:00 p.m. on Friday.

At 2:00 p.m. on the same day, the newspaper reported that the casualty count has gone up to 10, matching the numbers provided by Kiram’s camp.

The reports also indicated that villagers near the area could hear shots being fired as late as 12.45 p.m.

At least two ambulances are are on standby outside the Sulu group’s camp, it added. The shootout also caused schools to close down.

The leader of the group earlier told Philippine radio they had been surrounded by Malaysian police, who have warned in recent days that a deadline for them to leave had passed.

"They are here, they entered our area so we have to defend ourselves. There's shooting already," Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of the former Sultan of Sulu, told the radio station by telephone.

"We're surrounded," Kiram said. "We will defend ourselves."

Malaysian police could not be reached for comment.

Interior Secrertary Mar Roxas, the government official who has been designated a spokesman on the stand-off, said in a radio interview that the Philippine government was verifying reports of the fighting.

Ricky Carandang, a spokesman of President Aquino, said some of the group had tried to breach a cordon set up by the Malaysian security forces on Friday morning.

"There was a warning shot but there's no report of casualties, that was what we got and confirmed by the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs)," he told Reuters

The armed group is demanding recognition from Malaysia and renegotiation of the original terms of a lease on Sabah by the Sultanate to a British trading company in the 19th century. Malaysian officials have said the group's demands would not be met. - with reports from Kimberly Jane Tan/Michaela del Callar/Patricia Denise Chiu, Reuters/VVP/HS, GMA News


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