KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian authorities will not let armed members of a Filipino royal clan who are being hunted in Borneo meet with Philippine officials or family members who might seek to negotiate their safety, the foreign minister said Wednesday.
Clashes sparked by the clansmen's intrusion into Malaysia's Sabah state have killed 56 Filipinos and nine Malaysian police and army personnel this month, according to Malaysian government estimates. The clan wants to reassert a decades-old territorial claim to the eastern Borneo state, which is a short boat ride from the southern Philippines.
One of the clan's Philippine-based leaders, Esmail Kiram II, said earlier this week that a group of Filipinos could try entering the area to meet the clansmen and discuss how to resolve the crisis if a cease-fire is declared.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said Wednesday that authorities could not guarantee the safety of any negotiators.
"This is not the right time, this is not the right place for any outsiders apart from the security personnel to be in the area," Anifah told reporters after briefing more than 80 foreign diplomats about the crisis.
Anifah reiterated Malaysia's stance that the Filipino gunmen must surrender unconditionally and face prosecution.
Kiram told The Associated Press in Manila on Wednesday that personally meeting his younger brother, who is leading the Filipinos in Sabah, would be crucial in ending the standoff without further casualties.
"It will be difficult if we can't get Malaysia's cooperation," Kiram said in response to Anifah's comments.
Malaysian and Philippine authorities had tried to convince the clansmen to leave peacefully after they began occupying a remote village on Sabah's eastern seaboard last month. The crisis turned violent when the Filipinos killed two policemen March 1, leading to military airstrikes and mortar attacks last week that drove the clansmen out of the village into hiding in palm oil plantations nearby.
Anifah said Malaysian authorities would also not grant legal access for now to dozens of Filipinos detained in Sabah on suspicion of providing help or information to the clansmen. They are being held under a national security law that allows detention without trial for up to 28 days before they must be freed or brought to court.
Kiram's younger brother, Agbimuddin, has said he would rather die than surrender his Philippine sultanate's rights to Sabah, which he said has belonged to his clan and its followers for centuries. Sabah, which is rich in timber and oil, has been part of Malaysia since 1963.
On Wednesday, two Philippine navy gunboats intercepted 35 suspected followers of Agbimuddin who apparently fled Sabah aboard two motor boats and were traveling back to the southern Philippines, regional military commander Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo said.
The men were carrying 11 firearms and at least one was wounded and treated on a Philippine navy ship off Tawi Tawi, the country's southernmost province, he said. Navy officials said the men would be turned over to local police for investigation.
Philippine navy vessels patrolling the sea border with Malaysia have also intercepted Filipino settlers who were leaving following the violence amid concerns about a Malaysian crackdown on Filipino suspects.
Associated Press writers Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.