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(Updated 11:55 a.m.) – Malaysian jets bombed targets in Sabah Tuesday morning and hundreds of troops have moved into areas occupied by followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, escalating the violence intended to end the three-week standoff between Kiram's men and Malaysian security forces. “The latest news is that at 10am just now, Malaysian security forces launched a large-scale operation to defeat the intruders in Lahad Datu," said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, quoted by Malaysiakini news site as Razak addressed a rally of ulamas and administrators in Bukit Jalil, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur.
“We started with air strike by jet fighters of Royal Malaysian Air Forces, followed by mortar strike and as I'm speaking, the army and police forces, along with other members (of the security forces) following behind, are taking action to arrest and destroy the group which has breached the nation's sovereignty," Razak said.The operation to take over an area occupied by about 180 Filipinos, dozens of them armed, began at 7 a.m. Tuesday, a spokesman for Razak said. The government sent seven army battalions to the area in eastern Sabah state on Monday to reinforce the police. A report on Malaysia's The Star Online news site said "gunshots were heard" and fighter jets were seen early Tuesday circling the Felda Sahabat area in Lahad Datu town, where followers of Kiram have been holed up for three weeks.
"Gunshots were heard and fighter jets were seen circling around the Felda Sahabat area. Four (explosions) were also heard in Kampung Tanduo," the report said.
The group, which arrived by boat about three weeks ago, say they are descendants of the sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, which ruled parts of northern Borneo for centuries. They are demanding recognition and an increased payment from Malaysia for their claim as the rightful owners of Sabah.
Malaysia has refused their demands and, along with the Philippine government, had urged the group to return home.
The violence has sparked a political crisis ahead of elections for both the Philippine and Malaysian governments and raised concerns of instability in resource-rich Sabah state.In Manila, Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said the Philippine government tried everything to prevent such incident "but in the end, Kiram's people chose this path." Carandang added that Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario is still in Kuala Lumpur discussing the crisis with his Malaysian counterpart.
Map showing the locations of Tanduo and Felda Sahabat, where fighting erupted Tuesday, relative to the town centers. Tanduo is more than 100km by land from the town center of Lahad Datu. Felda Sahabat is around 10km away by air from Tanduo. Violence also erupted on Saturday in Semporna.Heavy weapons
The reported resumption of hostilities came a day after Malaysian forces started bringing in heavy weapons to the site of the three-week standoff.
An earlier report on The Star Online said Malaysian security forces rolled the heavy equipment to a remote area of the Felda Sahabat plantation in Lahad Datu, and are "poised to attack anytime."
It said the heavy artillery included six military armored personnel carriers (APCs), which were ferried on transporter trucks in Cendawasih town en route to Kampung Tanduo Monday afternoon.
“We are working with the Armed Forces to protect Sabah ... We have to move in a well-planned way,” Police Inspector-General Tan Sri Ismail Omar said.
He added that police and military officers were finalizing their tactical plans, with police under his command and the military under Armed Forces chief Jen Tan Sri Zulkifeli Mohd Zin in close coordination for the operation. He said police are sharing information with other government agencies to resolve the standoff. Violence erupted Friday
Ismail also said military personnel are helping the police force hunt a group of armed men believed to be followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, spotted at two villages in Kunak last Saturday.
Lahad Datu was the site of a bloody clash between Kiram's followers and Malaysian security forces last Friday. At least 12 Filipinos and two Malaysian commandos were killed in the March 1 encounter when Malaysian security forces tried to tighten a cordon around the armed group.
Following Friday's encounter, another clash occurred Saturday in Semporna, killing six Malaysian policemen and at least six Filipinos, raising concerns the violence was spreading to other areas in Sabah. Malaysia has pronounced an all-out military solution against Kiram's followers, who have defied President Benigno Aquino III's call for them to surrender without conditions.The Star Online report quoted Defense Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as saying five more battalions had been sent to Sabah, aside from the two announced earlier. One battalion each was sent to Sandakan and Tawau, while five were deployed to Lahad Datu.
"After the first attack, I have asserted that the intruders must surrender and if they refuse, the authorities of this country will take action," Najib said in a statement.
"The government has to take the right action in order to preserve the pride and sovereignty of this country."
Coast Guard, Navy in Palawan join watch vs Kiram followers
In the Philippines, the Coast Guard and the Navy in Palawan kept watch against possible attempts by Kiram's followers to sneak into Sabah.
Naval Forces West head Commodore Joseph Peña and Coast Guard Palawan head Commodore Efren Evangelista are coordinating their watch, radio dzBB's Palawan affiliate James Viernes reported Tuesday.
Sultan leaves hospital for dialysis
Meanwhile, Sultan Kiram and wife Cecilia Fatima left their Taguig City residence early Tuesday for the sultan's dialysis at a Parañaque City hospital, radio dzBB's Mao dela Cruz reported.
The report said the sultan, who undergoes dialysis twice a week, was expected to return home by noon. — With a report from Reuters/KG/RSJ/HS, GMA News