By Michaela del Callar
MANILA (4-Mar-2013/PNA) – The Philippine government dispatched Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario to Kuala Lumpur Monday as Manila scrambled to end the violence in Sabah where Malaysian forces and followers of a Filipino sultan were engaged in a continuing deadly standoff.
Del Rosario hastily left for the Malaysian capital Monday afternoon a day after a second major encounter between Malaysian authorities and suspected Filipino gunmen erupted Saturday night in Sabah, bringing the death toll in the violence that first erupted on Friday in the coastal town of Lahad Datu, Sabah to 31 lives – eight from Malaysia and 23 Filipino gunmen pressing ownership over the resource-rich territory.
Del Rosario’s trip underscores the Philippine government’s growing concern over the three week-standoff, the latest flareup in the conflict over Sabah that has long been a thorn in Malaysian-Philippines relations.
The Philippines has also been concerned that the violence could affect years-long negotiations being brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
Del Rosario will meet Malaysian counterpart Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, “to continue discussions on how to avert further loss of lives,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told a press briefing.
Hernandez said Del Rosario will personally convey to Anifah Manila’s request to allow a Philippine ship to dock in Lahad Datu to provide humanitarian and medical assistance to the wounded Filipinos.
Del Rosario, he added, will also ask the Malaysian side to give him a full account of the incident.
Citing a report of Philippine Embassy officials and the information gathered directly from the Special Branch Operations of the Malaysian police, Hernandez said six members of the Malaysian police and 11 Filipinos were killed in action in a fresh altercation that has spread to the Malaysian town of Semporna on Saturday.
“The loss of lives in Sabah is deeply regrettable,” Hernandez said. “We offer our profound condolences to the families of the victims of this unfortunate incident.”
Malaysian authorities has brought the situation under control, Hernandez said.
While it reiterated its call on the forces of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu led by Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram to “surrender peacefully,” the DFA appealed to Malaysian forces to “exercise maximum tolerance” in dealing with the remaining members of the group.
At least 180 Filipinos have been holed up in Sabah, surrounded by massive Malaysian forces, since landing by boat from Southern Mindanao on February 12 to resettle and fortify the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim over Sabah, sparking a diplomatic crisis between the Philippines and Malaysia.
The Filipinos refused to leave until the Malaysian government heeds their demand to re-open talks on unresolved claim of the sultanate on Sabah.
Jamalul Kiram III, 74, said he is the heir to the Islamic sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled Sabah and islands in Southern Philippines.
Over the years, the sultanate’s power has diminished but it has continued to receive nominal payment from the Malaysian government under a historical lease arrangement between Kiram’s forebears and the British North Borneo company.
Before flying to Kuala Lumpur, Del Rosario on Monday morning met with Malaysian Ambassador Zamri Kassim to hand over a note verbale or diplomatic note, stating “the governments of the Philippines and Malaysia both value the lives of their citizens, and share the same objective of preventing further loss of lives and further bloodshed.”
The DFA, in the same note, again conveyed its request for a full briefing by Malaysian authorities on the situation.
Del Rosario also sought approval of Manila’s pending request for clearance for the Philippine Navy ship AT-296 Tagbanua to proceed to Lahad Datu.
The ship’s entry to Lahad Datu, Hernandez said, will “enable the Philippine medical personnel aboard to provide humanitarian and consular assistance and provide medical care to the wounded and ferry them and the remaining members of the group back to their respective homes and families.”
“The Department of Foreign Affairs appeals that these requests be granted as soon as possible and that these be conveyed immediately to the relevant authorities,” Hernandez said. (PNA)