KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian security forces have surrounded about 100 armed men believed to be from a breakaway rebel faction in the southern Philippines, Malaysian police and a government official said on Thursday, but a Philippine official said they were unarmed Filipinos who had been promised land.
The standoff in Malaysia's eastern Sabah state threatened to stir tension between the Southeast Asian neighbors whose ties have been periodically frayed by security and migration problems caused by a porous sea border.
Malaysian police said in a statement that the situation was "under control", but did not say whether the men had agreed with a request to surrender.
"We are dealing with 100 armed foreigners from the southern Philippines. The army and the police have cordoned off the place where these foreigners are waiting," a high-ranking Malaysian government source with direct knowledge of the situation told Reuters.
He said the gunmen were suspected to be from a faction unhappy with the Philippines' recent peace deal with the main Muslim rebel group in southern Mindanao island.
A senior Philippine military official dismissed the Malaysian account of the group, saying they were unarmed Filipinos who had been promised land in Sabah.
He said a meeting over the land claim had attracted a large crowd and drawn the attention of Malaysian authorities.
"We know that these people arrived there five days ago and most of them are from nearby islands," the official, who asked not to be identified, said.
"Some of them were already residents in Sabah for a long time and they normally cross the border without any problem."
The number of illegal Muslim immigrants from the impoverished southern Philippines has surged in recent decades, stirring social tensions with indigenous Christian inhabitants in Sabah.
The Philippine government signed a landmark peace deal with Muslim rebels late last year to end a 40-year conflict in the south, but some factions have voiced opposition.
"Since Malaysia brokered the deal, followers from the Misuari Breakaway Group have decided to stir up some trouble and create fireworks in Sabah," the senior Malaysian official said, referring to a faction within the MNLF rebel group.
In 2000, a group of militants from the southern Philippines kidnapped 21 tourists from the Sabah diving resort of Sipadan. In 1985, 11 people were killed when gunmen believed to be from the southern Philippines entered Lahad Datu in Sabah, shooting at random before robbing the local branch of Standard Chartered Bank.