Feb 132013

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian security forces have captured a group of “foreigners with firearms” believed to be militants from the southern Philippines, police said on Thursday.

State news agency Bernama cited unidentified police sources as saying the group was made up of more than 100 men in military fatigues, but police have not publicly confirmed that report.

National police chief Ismail Omar said in a statement late on Wednesday that the gunmen intruded on Malaysian soil in the state of Sabah on Borneo island, a region with a history of incidents involving armed Filipino groups.

“This intrusion is a result of the problems in the southern Philippines,” Ismail said in an apparent reference to Muslim insurgents and other lawlessness in the southern Philippines, which lies just across the Sulu Sea from Sabah.

Malaysia is predominantly Muslim.

Ismail said security forces surrounded and ordered the gunmen to surrender in the Malaysian coastal town of Lahad Datu. His statement made no mention of how many people were involved.

“They’ve surrendered, but as for the number, I really have no info for now,” said a police spokesman contacted by AFP on Thursday.

Sabah’s eastern tip is less than an hour by speedboat from the nearest Philippine islands.

In October, Manila reached a framework agreement with the southern Philippines’ main Muslim separatist group aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency that has left more than 150,000 people dead.

In 2000, a Philippine militant group seized 21 mostly Western holidaymakers hostage as hostages at the Malaysian scuba diving resort of Sipadan, taking them off to Philippine islands. They were later ransomed.

Two Malaysians were kidnapped from a plantation in the area in November and were believed to have been taken to southern Philippines.

Security on Sabah’s coast has been problematic for Malaysia, with tens of thousands of Filipinos believed to have immigrated illegally to the state over the past few decades.

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