KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysian security forces in Borneo surrounded armed intruders believed to be from the southern Philippines and sought to persuade them to leave peacefully Thursday, authorities said.
The standoff has sparked one of the biggest security scares in recent years in Malaysia's eastern Sabah state, which is less than an hour by speedboat from southern Philippine provinces that have long been wracked by a Muslim separatist insurgency.
The intruders landed in Sabah's largely rural, coastal district of Lahad Datu on Tuesday following "troubles in the southern Philippines," national police chief Ismail Omar said.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was visiting a separate part of Sabah on Thursday, said "the government is choosing to handle the issue through negotiation and to get the group to leave peacefully to prevent bloodshed," The Star newspaper reported on its website.
Ismail earlier said the intruders had been ordered to surrender their weapons and that "the situation is under control and the public need not worry."
Details from the remote area, about 500 kilometers (300 miles) from Sabah's capital city, have been scarce. Authorities have not publicly disclosed the number of suspects or how they were armed, though Malaysia's national news agency, Bernama, cited unidentified police sources as saying that the intruders comprised more than 100 foreigners wearing military fatigues.
Speculation about the identity and motives of the intruders has included reports that they belong to Philippine Muslim guerrilla factions fleeing from recent violence there, but some officials have indicated they might be guards for a Muslim royal family in the southern Philippines who failed to inform Malaysian authorities that they were traveling to Sabah.
Security on Malaysia's sea border with the Philippines has been problematic for Sabah, where tens of thousands of Filipinos have tried to immigrate over the past few decades.
In 2000, southern Philippine gunmen slipped twice into Sabah and abducted people for ransom, including tourists from a diving resort.
One of the most recent kidnappings involved two Malaysians snatched from a plantation in Lahad Datu in November. They were believed to have been taken to the southern Philippines.