MANILA – Members of a major Philippine Muslim rebel force who were meant to have disarmed in the 1990s as part of a peace pact are involved in deadly battles in Malaysia, the group's leader said on Tuesday.
Nur Misuari, who founded the Moro National Liberation Front in the late 1960s, confirmed "freedom fighters" from his group were part of the militia sent by a self-proclaimed sultan to claim the Malaysian state of Sabah.
"I cannot deny that some of them are known to be MNLF freedom fighters," Misuari told a news conference in Manila, although he insisted he was not personally involved.
"They went there without my knowledge. I have not ordered anyone to join them. It would be very irresponsible for anybody to implicate us."
Misuari made the comments while visiting Jamalul Kiram III, the self-anointed Sultan of Sulu, who sent between 100 and 300 men from the southern Philippines to Sabah on February 12 to press his ownership claim.
Malaysian security forces launched a major offensive on Tuesday to end the standoff, which has so far left at least 27 people dead, although the sultan's men reported that they had survived.
The MNLF "freedom fighters" learnt their battle experience during decades of armed struggle against the Philippine government that cost tens of thousands of lives.
The MNLF had fought for an independent state in the southern Philippines, while also claiming Sabah state as part of their ancestral homeland.
The group signed a peace pact with the Philippine government in 1996 which created a Muslim autonomous region in the south, and set aside the claim over Sabah.
The MNLF peace pact led to a less-compromising splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation front, continuing the battle for independence.
The MILF is now close to signing a final peace deal with the government, which ignores the Sabah claim completely and would lead to the MNLF losing political influence in the southern Philippines.
Observers have speculated MNLF members may have helped launch the Malaysia offensive because they feared they were losing power.
However Misuari insisted MNLF leaders were not involved directly in the Malaysia standoff, and even offered to go to Kuala Lumpur to mediate a peaceful solution.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, President Benigno Aquino's spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, said that the Philippine Navy had stopped 70 more people from getting across the sea border to help the militants.
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