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Sulu ‘royal army’ in Sabah standoff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – About 100 armed men holed up in a village in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah identified themselves as the ”royal army” of the Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, adding more mystery to a bizarre border standoff.

Malaysian officials said on Thursday they suspected the intruders were a faction of a Philippine Muslim rebel group, while Philippine officials said they were unarmed Filipinos who had been promised land.

The drama on Borneo island has threatened to stir tension between the Southeast Asian neighbors whose ties have been periodically frayed by security and migration problems caused by a porous sea border.

The Malaysian police chief told reporters late on Thursday that the group had identified themselves as representing the Sultanate of Sulu, a string of islands in the southern Philippines that has a historic claim to Malaysia’s Sabah state.

”We have sent a team to negotiate with them. Discussion is proceeding well and we have told them to leave Sabah peacefully, as we do not want any situation which can threaten the security of the people,” Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Ismail Omar told a news conference, according to state news agency Bernama.

He said the group had agreed to leave Sabah once their demands were met, without specifying the demands.

”So far, the situation is not tense and they (the group) appear to be behaving well,” Ismail said in a separate statement to Bernama.

The Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur has sent a team to Sabah to coordinate with local authorities and to ascertain the identities of the group.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said yesterday that Philippine military officials are coordinating with their Malaysian counterparts to determine the standoff.

“We are trying to ascertain the facts that are attendant to the story. The Philippine Embassy in Malaysia has already dispatched our police attaché to that particular area to see kung ano na yung nangyayari [what is happening] and we continue to monitor the situation,” Valte said.

The reports likewise revealed that the Filipino gunmen were demanding to the Malaysian authorities that they be allowed to stay in Sabah. However, Malaysian authorities are negotiating with them so they could leave the country without bloodshed.

Valte however said that Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin had denied that the Filipinos were armed.

“According to Sec. Gazmin, unarmed daw [They were unarmed according to Sec. Gazmin],” she said. (with a report from Madel Sabater – Namit)

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