Malaysians flee turmoil as Philippines urges restraint

Terrified Malaysians fled a town where the bodies of gunmen lay in the streets Monday as the Philippines called for its neighbour to show "maximum tolerance" for Islamic Filipino intruders.

A total of 27 people have been reported killed after two deadly shootouts in Malaysia's state of Sabah on Borneo island, where militants landed on February 12 and claimed the state on behalf of the heir to a former Philippine sultanate.

AFP journalists saw convoys of armed vehicles moving toward affected areas after Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose government was scrambling to contain Malaysia's worst security crisis in years, ordered strengthened security in the state.

Dispatching Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to Malaysia, the Philippine government called the deaths "deeply regrettable" and urged "maximum tolerance in dealing with the remaining members" of the sultan's group.

It also prodded Malaysia for more information on the confused situation on the ground and asked that a Philippine naval ship be allowed to land to provide humanitarian, consular and medical help to besieged intruders.

An estimated 100-300 Filipino intruders have been holed up for three weeks, surrounded by police and the military, in the remote farming village of Tanduo.

The tense standoff erupted in a shootout Friday that killed 12 intruders and two police.

Fears of a wider guerrilla infiltration spread after a Saturday gunbattle in Semporna, a town that is hours away from Tanduo by road, in which six police and six gunmen died, according to authorities.

Another gunman was beaten to death there Saturday by villagers, police have said.

Federal police chief Ismail Omar was quoted by the national news agency Bernama as saying Monday that the situation was "under control".

But an AFP reporter in Semporna said residents were fleeing the normally laid-back seaside town, where the foul-smelling corpses of three men still lay in the streets on Monday in a grisly reminder of the shocking unrest.

Residents said they were gunmen killed by police.

"Our peaceful town has become a nightmare to live in," Julasri Yaakob, 38, said as he heaved a bag full of clothes onto a lorry.

"We are moving out because these are uncertain times. We heard the gunshots. My children are afraid."

Schools, stores and government offices were closed in the town but there was little sign of a security presence despite the recent shootout and fleeing population.

The affair has exposed lax border security and was likely to fuel longstanding complaints in Sabah that massive illegal immigration has fuelled lawlessness, just as Najib is due to call elections in coming months.

Followers of the 74-year-old Manila-based Islamic leader, Jamalul Kiram III, say the gunmen are ready to die to defend his claim to Sabah, which was once controlled by the now-defunct sultanate.

Supporters of the Filipino intruders took their campaign to cyberspace on Monday, manipulating Google listings to post a message backing the incursion.

A Google search for "Sabah" came back with a results page that displayed a "Wikipedia" entry preview calling Malaysian control of the state "illegitimate".

A number of Philippine sites also were reportedly defaced by pro-Malaysia hackers.

The exact identities of the gunmen and their numbers remain a mystery.

Malaysia's opposition has pounced, accusing the government of incompetence, failure to protect national sovereignty and failure to release timely information on the crisis.

Sabah has seen previous smaller cross-border raids from Islamic militants and other bandits from the Philippines, but nothing of this scale.

The Sulu sultanate's power faded about a century ago but it has continued to receive nominal Malaysian payments for Sabah under a lease deal inherited from European colonial powers.