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The self-proclaimed Philippine sultan whose followers launched a deadly incursion into Malaysia called for a ceasefire Thursday as troops continued to hunt for his elusive fighters.
The call came after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged a peaceful resolution of a bizarre incursion that has led to at least 28 reported deaths and escalated into Malaysia's biggest security crisis in years.
It also coincided with a sudden visit to the stricken corner of Borneo island by Malaysian premier Najib Razak, whose government tried for three weeks to persuade the invaders to leave but launched a military assault Tuesday after they refused.
The "sultan", Jamalul Kiram III, declared a unilateral ceasefire for 12:30 pm (0430 GMT) and urged Malaysia to reciprocate, according to a statement read out by his spokesman in Manila.
"They will not take any action. They will remain in the place where they are now. They will not expand operations," the spokesman said, referring to the militants, believed to number between 100 and 300, in Malaysia's Sabah state.
The spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, said Kiram was responding to Ban's appeal Wednesday for a cessation of hostilities in the Malaysian state of Sabah.
"(Ban) urges an end to the violence and encourages dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation," a statement released by his office said.
Jamalul declared the "unilateral ceasefire... in order to reciprocate the call of the UN to preserve lives", said Idjirani, as the elderly and ailing Kiram sat next to him.
"We hope Malaysia reciprocates the same call for a ceasefire."
Malaysian officials did not immediately respond to the appeal.
Kiram sent his followers from their southern Philippine island homes across the Sulu Sea to assert an ancestral claim to Sabah.
At least 28 people, mostly militants, have been reported killed since an initial stand-off began more than three weeks ago in the sleepy farming village of Tanduo.
Malaysia launched an air and ground attack Tuesday aimed at crushing the militants after they refused surrender demands and engaged security forces in two deadly shootouts.
But the assault failed to eliminate them, and Malaysian security forces have continued Thursday to scour the region of vast palm plantations and jungles for the fighters.
Tension is running high in eastern Sabah due to the Tanduo violence, but also reports that gunmen had been spotted in other towns down the coast, raising fears of a wider guerrilla infiltration.
Authorities released photos of the bodies of 13 militants on Wednesday, but said only one was confirmed killed in the crackdown, while most were from previous shootouts during the standoff.
The Sultan of Sulu once ruled over islands that are now parts of the southern Philippines, as well as Sabah.
However the sultanate lost control of Sabah to European colonial powers in the 18th Century.
Kiram says he is the current Sultan of Sulu, although the sultanate no longer has any formal power in the Philippines.
Malaysian foreign minister Anifah Aman had said late Wednesday that his government might seek Kiram's extradition if Manila failed to take action.
"The group's leader has made statements that have incited anger and hatred. Does the Philippines have laws to bring him to justice?" he said.
"If not, maybe we will ask the Philippines to hand him over to us."
However, the Philippine government said extradition was unlikely, citing the lack of a bilateral extradition treaty.