Gunmen refuse to leave in Malaysia border standoff

Fri Feb 15, 2013 5:16am EST
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By Anuradha Raghu and Manuel Mogato

KUALA LUMPUR/MANILA (Reuters) - About 100 armed men holed up in a village in the Malaysian state of Sabah are refusing to leave, saying they have links with the Sultanate of Sulu in the Philippines which has a historic claim over the northern tip of Borneo island.

Malaysia police and army officials have formed a tight security ring around the village, media said, with navy boats patrolling nearby islands. The gunmen landed near the coastal town of Lahad Datu on Tuesday.

The drama on Borneo island has threatened to spark diplomatic tension between the Southeast Asian neighbors whose ties have been periodically frayed by security and migration problems caused by a porous sea border.

"They demand to be acknowledged as citizens of the Sultanate of Sulu," Abdullah Kiram, a son of the Sultan of Sulu, Ismael Kiram the II, told Reuters in Manila.

Sulu is an archipelago in the southern Philippines. Today, it is a province but the old sultanate covered a wider area that included the northern tip of Borneo, which is now the Malaysian state of Sabah.

In an arrangement that stretches back to British colonial times, Malaysia pays a token amount to the sultanate each year for the "rental" of Sabah.

"They want to be acknowledged as citizens of their own land. They own Sabah," said Kiram. Sultans in the Muslim-majority Philippine south have no power but generally enjoy the respect of the people.

Malaysian officials said they suspected the men were a faction of a Philippine Muslim rebel group. Philippine officials said they were unarmed Filipinos who had been promised land.   Continued...