KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian security forces in Borneo are attempting to persuade more than 100 armed intruders from the southern Philippines to leave peacefully, police said Thursday.
The standoff with the men who apparently call themselves part of a "royal army" belonging to a Philippine Muslim sultanate has sparked one of the biggest security scares in recent years in Malaysia's eastern Sabah state, which is less than an hour by speedboat from the southern Philippine provinces.
Malaysian Police Chief Ismail Omar said the intruders landed in Sabah's largely rural coastal district of Lahad Datu this week. They have demanded official recognition as members of the Sultanate of Sulu, which wields influence among some southern Filipino Muslims, and an assurance from Malaysia that their people who enter Borneo would not be forcibly returned to the southern Philippines, which has endured a decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency.
Authorities have told the men that they should leave first and let such matters be determined through diplomatic channels, Ismail said.
"We see the negotiations are under control, and security forces have taken early action to surround this village" where the intruders have sought shelter with local residents who appeared to be friendly with them, Ismail said.
Police have not said what kind of weapons the intruders possess. Details from the remote area, about 500 kilometers (300 miles) from Sabah's capital city, have been scarce.
Philippine defense and security officials were in touch with their Malaysian counterparts to get details about the incident, Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said in Manila.
Security along Malaysia's sea border with the Philippines has been problematic for Sabah, where tens of thousands of Filipinos have tried to migrate over the past few decades.
In 2000, southern Philippine gunmen slipped twice into Sabah and abducted people for ransom, including tourists from a diving resort.
One of the most recent kidnappings involved two Malaysians snatched from a plantation in Lahad Datu in November. They were believed to have been taken to the southern Philippines.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.