By Rozanna Latiff
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak struck a softer tone with North Korea on Wednesday, a day after accusing it of treating Malaysians as "hostages" amid a diplomatic meltdown over the murder of the estranged half-brother of the North's leader.
Malaysian police have identified eight North Koreans wanted for questioning in connection with the killing of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur International on Feb. 13, and have said up to three of them are hiding at the North Korean embassy.
Police say assassins used VX nerve agent, a super-toxic chemical listed by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction. And, in a bid to stop the investigation targeting its citizens, North Korea retaliated on Tuesday by announcing a ban on Malaysians leaving the country.
Najib initially denounced that move as an "abhorrent act" while ordering a reciprocal ban on North Koreans leaving Malaysia.
Faced with the priority of securing the release of the 11 Malaysians stuck in North Korea, Najib sounded more conciliatory in parliament on Wednesday, saying there were no plans to cut diplomatic ties.
"We are a country that's friendly to them," Najib said, after reassuring MPs that there was no threat to the safety of the three embassy staff, six family members, and two other Malaysians in North Korea.
"We didn't pick a quarrel with them but when a crime has been committed, especially when chemical weapons have been used in Malaysia, we are duty bound to protect the interest of Malaysians," Najib said.
The United Nations has called for calm and urged the two countries to settle their differences through "established diplomatic practice".
Najib declined to elaborate on what action he would take to bring back his citizens: "If there's any negotiations, we can't do it through the media."
LOSING A FRIEND
North Korea is in grave danger of losing one of the few friends it has outside of China due to the diplomatic fallout from the case.
On Monday, Malaysia expelled North Korea's ambassador for questioning the impartiality of the murder investigation and ended visa free travel for North Koreans.
North Korea says the dead man is not Kim Jong Nam, and has suggested the victim died from a heart attack.
The only people charged for the murder so far are a Vietnamese woman and an Indonesian woman, accused of smearing the victim's face with VX.
But the police are pressing to question up to three men believed to be hiding in the North Korean embassy. Police have said that four other North Koreans fled Malaysia hours after the airport murder.
The only one to have been detained was released and deported on Friday due to insufficient evidence.
U.S. officials and South Korean intelligence suspect North Korean agents were behind the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been living in Macau under China's protection. He had spoken out publicly against his family's dynastic rule of North Korea.
Last week, Malaysia said it would investigate North Korea front companies after a Reuters report showed that Pyongyang's spy agency was running an arms network in the country.
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)