Zamboanga (AsiaNews) - Malaysian troops and Islamic fighters from the 'Sulu Royal Army' are still fighting. So far, 76 people, Malaysian soldiers and Filipino Muslim fighters, have been killed in clashes. Local eyewitnesses have said that the bodies of various soldiers were found mutilated.
Against this backdrop, Malaysian police today stopped Filipino soldiers and negotiators, who had come to the region to mediate between the parties. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman justified the move, arguing that Malaysian forces could not guarantee the safety of Filipino diplomats and troops.
Since 5 March, Malaysian forces have been engaged with Filipino fighters after they seized an area in Sabah province on 4 February.
A few days ago, self-proclaimed sultan of Sabah Jamalul Kiram III, who leads the Filipino Muslim fighters, said he was prepared to sign a ceasefire agreement and open negotiations with the backing of the Filipino government.
However, in view of the high number of casualties, Malaysia has opted for a hard-line approach and is trying to expel the Filipino paramilitary force.
Fr Sebastiano D'Ambra, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Zamboanga (Mindanao) who is also the founder of a Muslim-Christian group called Silsillah, said, "the situation is really serious. It is affecting residents of the province, especially Filipino migrant workers from Sulu and Jolo."
At least 500 families are said to have fled the villages caught in the crossfire between soldiers and fighters, making their way to refugee centres further south.
With some 800,000 Filipino Muslims living in Sabah, Filipino authorities are preparing for a mass exodus from the area.
The dispute between Malaysia and the descendants of the Sultanate of Sulu goes back centuries, Fr D'Ambra explained. Local lords had donated the region to the sultans for helping them against European colonisers.
In 1878, the area was leased to outside interests. Following the Second World War, when Malaysia became independent (1963), it viewed the agreement as an act of cession, and so took over the area.
Since then, the descendants of the House of Kiram, heirs to the Sultanate of Jolo, have claimed the territory as their own property.
In the 1980s, they secured the support of then Filipino President Marcos who tried unsuccessfully to push their cause.
For the PIME missionary, recent agreements between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Filipino government have given Sulu Muslims a chance to reclaim Sabah. In so doing, they are threatening Filipino peace talks.
For this reason, Manila has put the brakes on the Sabah issue for fear of antagonising Kuala Lumpur, which has brokered negotiations between the Filipino government and Muslim rebels. (S.C.)