Kiram men opened fire at our forces: Malaysian official
MANILA (1st UPDATE) - Malaysia said Friday that Filipino gunmen had opened fire at the scene of a tense stand-off over a territorial dispute, but denied they had returned fire as rebels claimed 10 of their group were killed.
Malaysia's Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein wrote on Twitter that shots had been fired in the Sabah village of Lahad Datu, but that security forces had not retaliated and that the group continued to be surrounded.
"I confirm that our security forces have not taken a single shot but were shot at at 10am this morning!" he tweeted.
He later told The Star newspaper that there had been "no deaths".
Philippine President Benigno Aquino's spokeswoman Abigail Valte told reporters that security forces had fired "warning shots" but played down reports of a firefight.
"Warning shots were fired. There was no gunfight. There were no casualties," she said.
Malaysia's ambassador to the Philippines told Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario that the gunfire had stopped and there were no reports of casualties, foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said on local television.
However, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed Filipino Muslim sultan who sent the men to Sabah to stake their territorial claim, alleged the Malaysian authorities had shot dead 10 members of the group.
Scores of followers of Jamalul Kiram II, the self-proclaimed heir to the Filipino Muslim sultanate of Sulu have been facing off with Malaysian forces in the village for more than two weeks.
The group, which includes about 30 gunmen according to Filipino authorities, sailed from their remote southern Philippine island homes to Lahad Datu on February 12.
Abraham Idjirani, Kiram's spokesman, claimed snipers from the Malaysian forces had killed 10 of the sultan's men and wounded four other members of the party.
"I talked to (the group's leader) by telephone just now and asked him how many of his men were martyred. He told me 10. I enquired about the wounded and he said four," Idjirani told a news conference at Kiram's Manila home.
"They are not leaving," he said of Kiram's men. "The fighting will continue."
President Benigno Aquino's spokesman Ricky Carandang said the Malaysian authorities had briefed Manila about how the Malaysian forces had fired warning shots.
He stressed they did not receive any reports of casualties.
"This was not a firefight, that's what we were told. What we know is that there were some members of the party who tried to break out of the area where they are being contained and they were arrested by the Malaysian authorities."
Carandang added: "The foreign department and other concerned cabinet members are talking to Malaysian counterparts for this to remain peaceful."
Kiram says he is the head of the Islamic Sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled parts of Borneo including the site of the stand-off, 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.
The former British colony became part of the federation of Malaysia when it was formed in 1963.
Kiram and the other heirs of the sultan still receive nominal annual compensation from Malaysia in the equivalent of about $1,700.
Idjirani suggested last week that the men would stand down if the compensation were substantially raised.
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