Manila (AsiaNews) - Conflict between Muslim factions in predominantly Muslim Mindanao is affecting Malaysia, where the authorities recently reported the presence of some 200 Filipino Muslim militants in the state of Sabah (Borneo Island), which is also home to a sizeable Christian community.
According to Indonesia's Interior Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, the group has been holed up in a small village on Sabah's east coast. To avoid bloodshed, "Security forces are [. . .] negotiating with them, some of whom are armed," he said.
Unknown until now, the group that calls itself the 'Sulu Royal Army' has been added to the list of armed Muslim groups active on Borneo and in the Philippines.
Their number has been rising since the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Filipino authorities reached a peace agreement. MILF is the major Islamic movement in the country, and the peace deal it has inked calls for its disarmament, something that has left a leadership vacuum in the region.
At present, it is still unclear whether members of terror group Abu Sayyaf are among the Filipino militants in the Malaysian village. Sulu (Mindanao) is the former's stronghold and is not far from Malaysian territorial waters.
Filipino authorities have not excluded that possibility and in recent days deployed a number of Navy vessels along its maritime borders. MILF troops are also in the area.
In 2000, Muslims extremists abducted 21 Western tourists in Sipadan (Lahad Datu, Malaysia). The incident ended after months of negotiations between Malaysia, the Philippines and the kidnappers.
Sources told AsiaNews that the Sulu Royal Army is "one of many private armies hired by local Muslim leaders who have close ties to Filipino rebels."
In recent years, the waters that separate the Philippines from Malaysia have become a major conduit for weapons, drugs and people.
Historically, Malaysian Muslim leaders have been allied to Filipino rebels whose goal is to re-establish the pre-colonial Sultanate of Sulu.
Malaysian authorities warn that the arrival of people from Mindanao has heightened tensions in Sabah, home to a sizeable Christian minority, whose members now fear discrimination and abuses at the hands of Muslims. (S.C.)