Fourteen people reportedly were killed Friday in a shootout between Malaysian commandos and a Filipino clan that has holed up in a Malaysian coastal village for weeks, claiming the land belongs to them.
The lengthy standoff turned bloody after members of the clan started shooting at troops, who were tightening security around the village of Lahad Datu, a Malaysian police official told reporters. Twelve clan members and two Malaysian commandos were reported dead in the gunfight.
“We don't want to engage them but they fired at us,” said Hamza Taib, police chief of Sabah state, in an interview with the Associated Press. “We have no option but to return fire.”
A clan spokesman insisted to reporters in the Philippines that Malaysian commandos had fired the first shot. The Filipinos had “no recourse but to defend themselves to their last breath,” spokesman Abraham Idjirani told the Philippine Star.
A day before the bloodshed erupted, the Philippine government had pleaded with Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to persuade his followers to return to the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines.
“The Kirams would like to speak to us.... Let’s do it in a way where the tense situation has been resolved and we can discuss in an objective, prudent atmosphere,” said Edwin Lacierda, spokesman for Philippines President Benigno Aquino III, in a Thursday news conference.
The Muslim sultanate once ruled over most of northern Borneo, now the Malaysian state of Sabah. It has long claimed the area, but the dispute had been dormant for years. Then three weeks ago nearly 200 members of the Filipino clan arrived by boat to assert their claim to the territory.
The dispute erupted at the same time that the Philippine government and a Muslim separatist group prepared to polish off a peace deal to end an insurgency in the southern Philippines. That peace deal is believed to have helped trigger the events unfolding in Lahad Datu: The sultan complained he was “left out of the peace road map,” the Agence France-Presse reported.
The Philippine government “should be helping us, not sue us,” the sultan said on the radio Friday, according to the Philippine Inquirer. Kiram argued that Aquino was aiding the Malaysians instead.
In Malaysia, media reported Friday that the standoff at Lahad Datu was still ongoing. Prime Minister Najib Razak told the Star newspaper that he was “very sad” about the bloodshed.
"Now there is no grace period for the group to leave,” Najib told the Star, alluding to earlier deadlines set by the Malaysian government. Commanders on the ground have been authorized “to take necessary action.”