BY CLARA CHOOI
ASSISTANT NEWS EDITOR
KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 — The Philippine navy said today it has intercepted two boats believed to have set sail from the conflict zone in Sabah, where Malaysian security forces are still locked in an armed standoff with the Sulu Sultanate’s “royal army”.
Philippine news network ABN-CBS said in a report on its website this morning that the navy informed reporters via text message that the boats were spotted by its patrol vessel near the vicinity of Taganak Island in Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines.
The report, however, did not mention the time that the boats were stopped and details on the number and identity of its passengers.
ABS-CBN News added that the Philippine navy said it would escort the boats to Bongao in Tawi-Tawi.
Tawi-Tawi in the southern Philippines is home to many of the sultanate’s followers, and where its “royal security force” has currently set up its base camp.
Since the standoff began last month, many journalists and photographers have been camping out in the town of Siminul in Tawi-Tawi, where many soliders from the “royal army” are still waiting for news of their comrades in Lahad Datu, Sabah.
Since the clashes began last Friday, both the Malaysian and Philippine navies have increased border security, setting up more blockades in waters separating both nations, fearing an influx of more Filipino fighters into Sabah to aid the Sulu army.
The Philippine navy earlier said it had sealed off the “southern backdoor” to Malaysia to prevent such an exodus, acknowledging that locals from the Sulu province have been using this “backdoor” daily for trade purposes without much fanfare.
After Malaysian security forces launched the all-out assault on the Sulu gunmen in Sabah on Tuesday, reports streamed in that some 10,000 Tausug, also known as Suluks, have sailed to the east Malaysian state to aid their fellow Filipinos.
The claim, made by Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Islamic council committee chairman Habib Hashim Mudjahab, however contradicted reports elsewhere that security forces in both Malaysia and the Philippines have blocked off entry points into the beleaguered Lahad Datu township, where the militants are holed up.
“We can no longer prevent our people. We are hurt and many of our people, even the non-combatants, are going to Sabah to help the sultanate,” Mudjahab was quoted as saying in The Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The MNLF official said the naval blockade was of no use as those who know the route well would be able to slip into the east Malaysian state easily, and without raising any suspicion.
But the Inquirer also reported denials of any such reinforcements being sent into Sabah from Lt-Gen Rey Ardo, chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, and acting Governor Mujib Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Both men said they are not aware of any reinforcements sent to aid the self-proclaimed royal army of the Sulu Sultanate.