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Malaysia hunts for invaders as 'more fighters join'

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Malaysia on Wednesday expanded its hunt for armed Filipino invaders who dodged a military assault meant to crush them, as a Philippine guerrilla said more Islamic fighters had arrived.

Malaysia's police chief said followers of a self-styled Muslim sultan had scattered after an air and ground attack the day before in eastern Sabah state, aimed at ending a three-week stand-off, the country's worst security crisis in years.

Indicating authorities were struggling to corral the slippery gunmen, they "expanded the operations area" Wednesday to a wider swathe of Borneo island farm country, Ismail Omar told reporters in a village near the battlezone.

For the first time, authorities also released evidence of militant deaths, handing out grisly photos of corpses and saying 13 bodies had been found.

But the latest announcements meant the government continued to have little proof that the assault on the estimated 100-300 militants pinned down amid vast oil palm plantations had hit the mark.

Officials said nine of the discovered corpses were believed to have died in an earlier shootout and one was shot in mop-up operations Wednesday, while it remained unclear when the others died.

Officials did not offer an updated death toll for the overall incursion. Previous reports before Tuesday's crackdown have said 19 militants and eight police had been killed in clashes.

The invaders landed from the nearby southern Philippines on February 12, claiming Sabah for their Manila-based "sultan" Jamalul Kiram III, tearing open a long-dormant territorial row and causing residents to flee nearby towns and villages.

The elderly Kiram appeared to thumb his nose at Malaysia Wednesday, saying he had just chatted by phone with his younger brother, one of the incursion's purported leaders.

"He was telling me they are eating good food, but the hard thing is they are being chased. So where will they go?" he said, declining to specify their location but adding that they would not surrender.

Kiram, 74, claims to be heir of the former sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled part of the southern Philippines and claimed sovereignty over Sabah. The intruders are attempting to reassert his claim to the remote area.

A leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which waged a past insurgency against the Philippine government, warned of more trouble ahead, saying hardened fighters from his Muslim group had arrived to support the militants.

"Many have slipped through the security forces" in recent days, Muhajab Hashim told AFP in Manila, adding more were expected to join the fray, but declining to reveal numbers.

"They know the area like the back of their hands because they trained there in the past," he said, referring to long-standing allegations that Malaysia helped trained MNLF leaders for their insurgency against Manila.

Muslim-majority Malaysia, accustomed to watching neighbours Thailand and the Philippines grapple with Islamic insurgents, has been shocked by the drama.

The government, which faces closely fought elections in coming months, has been harshly criticised by the opposition over the breach.

The news that militants had escaped destruction stoked the fears of local residents already on edge over the stunning incursion into the quiet region, covered by huge expanses of oil palm trees and pockets of jungle.

"If there are no more negotiations I think more people on both sides will die," local resident Shamsul Bahari said.

"I am scared to even go to work in the palm oil estate."

An AFP reporter saw security forces including soldiers in full battle gear and armoured personnel carriers continuing to head toward the military operations zone centred on the village of Tanduo Wednesday.

Authorities have not explained how the intruders were able to slip through a security cordon built up over the course of the three-week standoff.

Britain, the United States and Australia issued advisories warning against travel to affected areas.

Some suspect the MNLF orchestrated the offensive because they feared a peace deal being finalised between the Philippine government and another Muslim separatist group would marginalise them.

Philippine presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said its navy intercepted 70 people trying to join the insurgents last month but added Manila had no knowledge of the claim of MNLF fighters heading to the conflict.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130306/malaysia-hunts-invaders-more-fighters-join-1