KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Gunmen ambushed and killed five Malaysian policemen as fears mounted that armed intruders from the southern Philippines had slipped into at least three coastal districts on Borneo island, officials said Sunday.
Two of the attackers were also fatally shot Saturday night, escalating tensions in eastern Sabah state, where Malaysia’s biggest security crisis in recent years began after about 200 members of a Philippine Muslim royal clan occupied a village last month to claim the territory as their own.
Security forces clashed with the clan members in the coastal area of Lahad Datu on Friday, leaving 12 Filipinos and two Malaysian police commandos dead.
The remaining clan members have refused to budge, while concerns have grown that other groups from the Philippines’ restive southern provinces might enter Sabah, which shares a long and porous sea border with the Philippines that’s difficult to patrol.
A police team was attacked late Saturday while inspecting a settlement in Semporna town, more than 150 kilometers (90 miles) from Lahad Datu, said national police chief Ismail Omar. Authorities were searching the area for more of the assailants.
Police are also investigating sightings of armed foreigners in military-style clothing in a third Sabah seaside district nearby, Ismail said.
It was not clear whether the groups in the three areas had links to each other.
The Filipinos who landed in Lahad Datu on Feb. 9 say ownership documents from the late 1800s prove the territory is theirs. They have rejected repeated calls from both the Malaysian and Philippine governments to leave Sabah, a short boat ride from the southern Philippines.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday that the government would offer “no compromise — either they surrender or face the consequences if they refuse.”
Police dropped leaflets by helicopter over the occupied village Saturday telling the Filipinos to give up, while the navy bolstered patrols in waters between Malaysia and the Philippines.
Three of the intruders tried to escape late Saturday and were caught, Ismail said, without elaborating.
Sabah’s chief minister Musa Aman said the federal government has agreed to increase the size of the police and army force in Sabah.
The standoff has raised the Sabah territorial issue, a thorn in Philippine-Malaysian relations for decades, to a national security concern for both countries.
The crisis erupted during a delicate time in peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
Some Malaysians have voiced worries about whether tens of thousands of Philippine migrants living in Sabah, many undocumented workers, might sympathize with the Filipino group and cause unrest if they’re angry with the government’s reaction to the crisis.
The Lahad Datu group is led by a brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu.
In Manila, Jamalul Kiram III told reporters that he was worried the violence in Sabah might spread because many Filipinos, especially followers of his sultanate in the southern Philippine, are upset by the killing of their compatriots in Lahad Datu.
His daughter, Jacel, who is a sultanate princess, called on Filipinos to stay calm but stressed the sultanate would never back down from its struggle to reclaim Sabah.
“This concerns honor above life,” she told reporters. “We will not retreat just like that, because we’re fighting for something and our struggle is our right and the truth.”
AP writer Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.