KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian troops backed by fighter jets attacked an armed Filipino group on Tuesday, trying to end a standoff on Borneo island after violence that killed at least 27 people and sparked fears of broader insecurity in the resource-rich area.
The operation to seize an area occupied by about 180 Filipinos, dozens of them armed, began at 7 am, a day after the government sent seven army battalions to Malaysia’s eastern Sabah State to reinforce police.
Malaysian media reported local residents as saying they heard several explosions and saw fighter jets circling over the coastal area near the town of Lahad Datu.
“The government has to take the right action in order to preserve the pride and sovereignty of this country,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a statement.
The group, which arrived by boat about three weeks ago, say they are descendants of the sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, which ruled parts of northern Borneo for centuries. They are demanding recognition and an increased payment from Malaysia for their claim as the rightful owners of Sabah.
Malaysia has refused their demands. The Philippine government has repeatedly told the group that it was ready to talk but has urged them to first put down their arms and go home.
“We’ve done everything we could to prevent this but in the end Kiram’s people chose this path,” said Ricky Carandang, a spokesman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino, using the sultan’s family name.
The violence has sparked a political crisis ahead of elections for both governments.
Prolonged insecurity could also affect Sabah’s huge palm oil industry and dampen growing investor interest in energy and infrastructure projects in the state, although the main oil fields are far from the trouble.
Oil majors such as ConocoPhillips and Shell have poured in billions of dollars to develop oil and gas fields in Sabah. Chinese companies have been investing in hydro-power and coal mining.
Two policemen were killed along with 12 militants when Malaysian security forces tried to tighten a cordon around the armed group on Friday. That sparked more violence over the weekend with six policemen and seven more gunmen killed in another area, raising concerns the violence was spreading.
“As a Muslim country that values peace and solves conflict through discussion, our effort to avoid bloodshed in Lahad Datu has not been successful,” Najib said.
“Instead, members of our safety team have been attacked and killed, Malaysian civilians in Sabah are worried of their personal safety.”
The violence presents Najib with a security headache that could delay an election that must be held by June, adding to nervousness among investors over what could be the country’s closest ever polls.
Aquino, facing congressional elections in May, has come under pressure from opponents for supporting Malaysia’s rejection of the group’s claim to Sabah, which remains a dormant Philippine policy goal.
He in turn has suggested the political opposition encouraged the intrusion as a way of undermining a historic peace deal signed with Muslim rebels last year and embarrassing the government ahead of the elections.
The Philippine foreign secretary flew to Malaysia on Monday to urge “maximum tolerance” against the group. Aquino urged Malaysia not to harm the interests of an estimated 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah, where many work in palm oil plantations.
The Philippines was also asking permission for a Philippine navy vessel to be allowed to provide humanitarian, medical and consular assistance and to take the armed group home.