MANILA, Philippines – Shooting erupted in a Malaysian village that has been occupied by nearly 200 members of a Filipino clan for three weeks, but the Malaysian home minister denied Friday that his forces were responsible.
Members of a Muslim royal clan from the southern Philippines landed in a coastal village in Malaysia's Sabah state on Feb. 9 to claim the territory as their own, citing ownership documents from the late 1800s. They ignored appeals from Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to leave immediately or face prosecution at home on charges of triggering armed conflict.
The leader of the group, Agbimuddin Kiram, told Philippine radio station DZBB in Manila that Malaysian police surrounding Lahad Datu village opened fire early Friday and that his group fought back. He said there were fatalities on the Filipino side, but there was no independent confirmation.
"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. He said his plan was "to fight."
Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein wrote on Twitter that the situation was "still under control completely."
"I confirm that our security forces have not taken a single shot but were shot at at 10 a.m. this morning," he wrote. He added that the Filipinos remain surrounded and that authorities have not fired any retaliatory shots.
Philippine Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said that according to the Philippine police attaché in Malaysia, the police in Sabah fired warning shots. Roxas had no reports of any casualties.
On Tuesday, Aquino urged Kiram's brother in the southern 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.
The Philippines this week sent a navy ship with social and medical workers off Lahad Datu while trying to persuade the Filipinos to return home.
Associated Press writers Sean Yoong and Eileeen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.