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Malaysian forces attack armed Filipino group holed up in Borneo

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Published on Mar 6, 2013

Malaysian forces have attacked an armed Filipino group staked out in Borneo, where a three-week standoff has left at least 27 dead and threatened diplomatic security in a region rich in both resources and history.

Fighter jets launched air strikes on Tuesday morning before ground troops raided the hideout of about 180 Filipinos who sailed to eastern Sabah 24 days ago in an attempt to "claim back" land they say is rightfully theirs.

Armed with assault rifles, the group boarded ferries and speedboats in the Philippines on 9 February and landed in the Malaysian fishing village of Lahad Datu in eastern Sabah state, where they contend they are the rightful descendants of the southern Philippine sultanate of Sulu -- which laid claim to Sabah several hundred years ago and, the gunmen allege, still does. Malaysia denies the claim.

Tuesday's air and ground strikes follow a weekend gunfight that left 27 people dead, including eight Malaysian police. Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak, who had been criticised at home for being too lenient when the gunmen first landed on the island, said the attacks were "the right action in order to preserve the pride and sovereignty of this country".

It is still unclear, however, how successful the assaults may have been: Malaysian media claim that 20 gunmen's bodies were recovered afterwards, while Philippine media allege no one was hurt in the strikes.

The group had demanded greater compensation from Malaysia for their claim to Sabah. Malaysia currently pays a nominal fee to the Sultan of Sulu for historical purposes, a sum the sultan allegedly takes as proof that he -- and his followers -- still lay claim to the land. Sulu is a string of islands between Sabah and Mindanao island in the southern Philippines.

Although it is unknown why the gunmen chose this moment to raid Sabah, they may have been following a November decree by the sultan that his followers "resettle Sabah", said south-east Asia expert Carl Thayer of the Australia Defence Academy. Thayer said the sultan's loyalists number in the hundreds "among the several hundred thousand Filipinos [already] living in Sabah".

It is believed 800,000 Filipinos call Sabah home, many of whom moved to the region in the 1970s to escape violence in Mindanao.

The recent standoff has left Sabah battered by some of the worst violence Malaysia has seen in decades, which has already disrupted the island's extensive palm oil operations and threatened to curb investment in energy and infrastructure projects.

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