BY CLARA CHOOI
ASSISTANT NEWS EDITOR
KUALA LUMPUR, March 11 ― Manila has revived talks with the Kiram family over the possibility of withdrawing the Sulu Sultanate’s fighters from Sabah to end the month-long armed conflict with Malaysia, Philippine Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas said today.
According to several reports in the Philippine media, Roxas held a two-hour closed-door meeting in Quezon City this afternoon with Bantilan Esmail Kiram II to discuss the “disengagement” of the Sultanate’s combatants.
Esmail is the younger brother of the self-proclaimed Sulu “Sultan” Jamalul Kiram III. Another brother, Agbimuddin Kiram, is believed to be still in hiding in Lahad Datu, Sabah, where Malaysian security forces are conducting an operation flush out the rebel group.
According to ABN-CBS News, Esmail said the Kiram family would weigh the option but wanted to know what would happen to the Sultanate’s followers should they lay down arms.
“We are all deeply concerned about what’s happening in Lahad Datu, Sabah,” Roxas said in the network’s online report.
“I updated them (the Kiram clan) on the Philippine government’s actions via the DFA’s (Department of Foreign Affairs) negotiations with the Malaysians to protect those who are innocent,” he added.
The Sulu incursion in Sabah has so far resulted in the deaths of 63 people, including 54 Filipino militants, eight Malaysian policemen and one teenage boy.
The Sultan’s brother, Agbimuddin Kiram, led a group of over 200 armed rebels to Lahad Datu on February 9 to lay the Sultanate’s claim over the resource-rich territory in north Borneo.
The network reported that Roxas would not divulge more information on his talk with Esmail and merely confirmed they had discussed “disengagement” for the sake of protecting the lives of Filipinos in Sabah who were not involved in the incursion.
The secretary pointed out that it was already public knowledge that the Malaysian government wanted the Sulu militants to surrender unconditionally, but said the Kirams were concerned over how this would be done.
The Kiram family called for a ceasefire last Thursday upon receiving reports that more of its men were falling from battles with Malaysian forces but Putrajaya rejected the appeal.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, in an immediate reaction, told the invaders to surrender unconditionally or face death.
Roxas noted that the only peaceful option open to the Kiram family was to accede to the call to surrender, adding that Esmail was also aware of the efforts by the Philippine government to ensure the conflict does not claim more lives.
“So, Esmail is very much aware of the efforts undertaken by the government to prevent the firefight since the crisis started on March 1,” Roxas said.
The secretary also said today’s meeting has the blessing of the ailing Jamalul, who is currently undergoing dialysis treatment in Manila.
Esmail has also been asked by the Malaysian government to act as intermediary between the Sultanate and government negotiators, Roxas claimed.
The first firefight between Malaysian forces and the Sulu gang started on March 1 and resulted in the death of 20 Sulu militants and eight Malaysians. The Kiram family has labelled the clash as the “March 1 massacre”.
Reeling from the loss of Malaysian lives, Putrajaya launched Ops Daulat last Tuesday to flush out the rest of the Sulu invaders, sending in battalions of armed troops and mounting an aerial airstrike on the gunmen.
As of this afternoon, the Sulu incursion in Sabah has resulted in the deaths of 63 people, including 54 Filipino militants, eight Malaysian policemen and one teenage boy.
Agbimuddin had first led a group of over 200 armed rebels to Lahad Datu on February 9 to lay the Sultanate’s claim over the resource-rich territory in north Borneo. It is not known how many of the group now remain.