KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Fourteen people were killed in a shootout Friday as Malaysian authorities tried to end a three-week standoff with about 200 members of a Filipino clan occupying a village in eastern Malaysia, police said.
Members of a Muslim royal clan from the southern Philippines landed in the coastal village of Lahad Datu in Sabah state on Feb. 9 to claim the territory as their own, citing ownership documents from the late 1800s.
Twelve clan members and two Malaysian police commandos were killed early Friday in a 30-minute shootout, Sabah Police Chief Hamza Taib said. Malaysian authorities were tightening a security cordon around the village when members of the clan opened fire, he said, adding that three policemen were injured in the shootout. He said the standoff was continuing.
"We don't want to engage them but they fired at us. We have no option but to return fire," Hamza said by telephone.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was quoted by The Star newspaper as saying he had given security forces the authority to take whatever action they thought necessary to end the standoff. He said he regretted the bloodshed.
"I am very sad over the incident because what we had wanted to prevent, which is bloodshed, has actually happened," Najib said.
The village was occupied by a group led by Agbimuddin Kiram, a brother of the head of a Filipino Muslim royal clan. The group earlier ignored appeals from Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to leave immediately or face prosecution at home on charges of triggering an armed conflict.
Filipino officials, citing Malaysia's ambassador to the Philippines, Mohamad Zamri Mohamad Kassim, said earlier Friday that 10 members of the clan surrendered to police following the shootout, while the rest fled and were being pursued by Malaysian authorities.
But Hamza said no one had surrendered. He said clan members remained holed up in the village and that the security operation was ongoing.
"We will assess the situation again. We want them to surrender peacefully. If they still insist, we have no choice, but there is no time frame," he said.
The Philippine government reiterated its appeal to the group to give up its arms and return home. "The continued defiance has to stop for the peaceful solution of this incident," said Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Paul Galvez.
The Philippines requested that medics aboard a Philippine navy ship near the village be allowed onshore to treat any of the Filipinos who may have been wounded Friday and take them and the others back to the country. There was no immediate response to the request.
Earlier Friday, Kiram told Philippine radio station DZBB that Malaysian police surrounding the village opened fire and that his group fought back.
"They suddenly came in; we had to defend ourselves," Kiram said. Sounds of shots were heard in the background while he was being interviewed by phone.
On Tuesday, Aquino urged Kiram's older brother in the southern Philippine province of Sulu, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, to order his followers to return home and called their action a "foolhardy act" that was bound to fail.
The standoff elevated the Sabah territorial issue, which has been a thorn in Philippine-Malaysian relations for decades, to a Philippine national security concern. The crisis erupted at a crucial stage of peace negotiations — brokered by Malaysia — between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
Aquino has said that the standoff may have been an attempt to undermine his government on the part of those opposing the peace deal, including politicians and warlords who fear being left out in any power sharing arrangements.
Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano and Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.