Malaysian security forces on Wednesday battled a group of Filipino intruders in the rugged terrain of Borneo after they escaped a military assault with fighter jets and mortar fire on their hideout, police said. One Filipino was shot and believed killed.
It was not clear if any of the intruders suffered any casualties in Tuesday's assault before they melted away into the jungles, chased by hundreds of Malaysian security forces. Previous clashes between the two sides have left 19 intruders and eight policemen dead.
Malaysia's national police chief Ismail Omar said security forces exchanged gunfire in a hilly coastal district thick with foliage slightly after dawn. One clansman was shot and possibly killed, he said.
"We're in a good position. We ask the public not to panic," Ismail said, adding that authorities would expand their search area beyond the current 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles).
The bizarre security crisis involves some 200 armed members of a Philippine Muslim clan, which claims to have a royal ancestral right over Malaysia's resource-rich eastern state of Sabah. They arrived with little fanfare from southern Philippines, a short boat ride away, three weeks ago and occupied a remote part of Sabah after scaring away the villagers.
Ignoring appeals by the Malaysian government as well as Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, the intruders have refused to leave to highlight their claim.
The crisis has caught both countries by surprise. Few in Malaysia or the Philippines even know about the Filipino group led by Jamalul Kiram III, who claims to be the sultan, or the hereditary ruler, of the southern, predominantly Muslim province of Sulu in the Philippines.
Sabah and Sulu are separated by a narrow strip of the Sulu Sea that at its shortest span can be traversed by boat in 30 minutes. The two provinces have shared traditional ties and people, who are of the same ethnic stock, frequently travel back and forth. Some 800,000 Filipinos, mostly Muslims, have settled in Sabah over the years to seek work and stability.
Although tensions between the two communities are not uncommon, it is feared that the Kiram's claims and the violence over the past week will sour relations further and could lead to retaliation against the long-staying Filipino settlers.
On Tuesday, Malaysian soldiers and police attacked the area occupied by Kiram's followers for three weeks in an assault codenamed "Operation Sovereign" involving fighter jets, ground troops and mortar fires.
"Bombs were dropped, but they are still safe," Jacel Kiram, the sultan's daughter, said in Manila where she and her father are based.
She said her father's brother, who is leading the occupiers in Sabah, informed her by telephone that he and his followers were unhurt.
Commenting on Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman's announcement this week that the group was being formally considered terrorists, Kiram said, "Malaysia wants us dead, and all we want is to talk."
The Filipinos insist that Sabah, a state rich with timber and oil, had once belonged to their royal sultanate for more than a century and should be handed back.
What began as an outlandish but peaceful occupation turned violent after the Filipinos fatally shot two Malaysian policemen last week. Six other police officers were ambushed and killed by other Filipino assailants believed to be linked to the clansmen at a waterfront village in another Sabah district on Saturday. The Malaysians shot and killed 19 clansmen and their suspected allies.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario met his Malaysian counterpart this week and "pursued the possibility of allowing for an unconditional surrender of the group to avert further loss of lives and allow them to return to their respective homes and families," according to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday.
Malaysian government officials have said the Filipinos must be prosecuted either in Malaysia or the Philippines for crimes such as murder.
Activists have called for tougher border security and immigration policies in Sabah, presenting a major political challenge to Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition, which faces general elections that must be held by the end of June.
Some fear the crisis will also complicate peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski, Teresa Cerojano and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.