KUALA LUMPUR, March 13 – Thirty-five followers of the Sulu Sultanate in two boats laden with firearms and ammunition were intercepted off the coast of Tawi-Tawi in southern Philippines this morning, the Philippine navy has confirmed.
Navy spokesman Lt. Commander Gregory Fabic said in a report on the Philippine Star that the followers were intercepted by a patrol vessel in waters off Andoligan town at around 6.30am.
The report added that it was yet to be determined if the boats were sailing to Sabah to reinforce the Sulu army currently locked in battle with Malaysian security forces.
A woman was among the 35 detained.
The “royal” Sulu army, led by self-proclaimed “crown prince” Agbimuddin Kiram, landed in Sabah’s coastal Lahad Datu township on February 9 to lay claim over the north Borneo territory.
Attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully failed, despite intervention from the Philippine government, sparking the first round of attacks between Malaysian security forces and the Sulu gunmen on March 1.
Last Tuesday, Malaysia launched Ops Daulat, kicking off the assault with an aerial strike of bombs and heavy artillery fire before dispatching its ground troops to make a clean sweep of the coastal villages in Lahad Datu where Aagbimuddin and his men were hiding.
But the elusive Agbimuddin and his men still slipped out of sight, and are believed to be receiving aid from local villagers in the area, some of whom have been detained for questioning.
His kinsmen in the Philippines have also claimed in the media that the rebel leader contacted them several times over the past week to inform them he was still safe and unharmed.
Last Thursday, the Kiram clan called for a ceasefire but refused to pull its army from Lahad Datu.
In response, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak rejected the request, telling the gun men to surrender unconditionally instead or face death.
To date, 56 Sulu gunmen have been shot dead in separate skirmishes, while the Malaysian security force has lost 10 men – eight policemen and two soldiers. Another teenage boy, whose identity is unknown, was also shot dead on Day 6 of Ops Daulat.