MANILA – President Benigno Aquino on Thursday criticized Filipino gunmen who entered a Malaysian state in a bizarre effort to stake a territorial claim, warning their actions could lead to conflict.
Dozens of followers of an Islamic sultan from the southern Philippines sailed over to neighboring Sabah on the Malaysian part of Borneo island more than a week ago to assert their centuries-old claim over the area.
Malaysian authorities surrounded the group, which is believed to be made up of anywhere between 80 and 400 people, and a standoff has since been in place while negotiations continue.
"Going there with arms is not the way to resolve this," Aquino said in his first public comments on the issue.
"When you brandish arms, naturally the other side has only one way to respond to such a challenge."
Aquino said his government had been talking to all parties, including the sultan's family, to find a peaceful solution.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said separately that Aquino had ordered government authorities "to do everything possible to try and urge them... to peacefully withdraw and to do this as quickly as possible".
The Islamic Sultanate of Sulu once controlled parts of Borneo, including the site of the standoff, as well as southern Philippine islands.
The sultanate leased northern Borneo to Europeans in the 1870s. While the sultanate's authority gradually faded as Western colonial powers exerted their influence over the region, it continued to receive lease payments for Sabah.
Heirs to the sultanate still receive nominal yearly compensation from Malaysia under a long-standing agreement. One of the demands from the gunmen is more compensation.
Estimates of the number of the armed men has varied. Last week, Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein put the number at between 80 to 100 gunmen.
But the sultan's spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, said in Manila there were about 400 members of the group, including 20 with arms.
Idjirani said the sultan, Jamalul Kiram, who lives in a Manila suburb, gave the men the authority to reside in Sabah and they were determined to resist efforts to expel them.
The sultan's men in Sabah were instructed not to fire first, Idjirani added.
"But if the Malaysian military will attack us, we will be left with no choice but to defend ourselves," he quoted Kiram as saying.
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