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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Sabah on high alert of Abu Sayyaf sneaking in

KOTA KINABALU - Malaysia is on high alert for an influx of Filipinos desperate to flee the Philippine military’s offensive in the country’s south.

The concern comes with the estimated 400 waiting for the “right time” to breach the Eastern Sabah Security Command’s (Esscom) security cordon — elements of the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) assimilating with fleeing villagers to turn Sabah into their outpost.

To thwart any attempt by the foreigners to land on Sabah’s shores, Esscom has increased its strength along the 1,700km maritime border Malaysia shares with the Philippines.

Federal police Special Branch director Datuk Seri Mohamad Fuzi Harun told the New Straits Times that solid intelligence had suggested that Abu Sayyaf would intensify their kidnap-for-ransom operations, for funds to fuel the organisation’s operations.

Fuzi said he had reason to believe that those behind the many kidnapping cases in Sabah were among those hoping to escape the military offensive in the southern Philippines, an area currently the target of new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte had ordered his military to eliminate the 400-odd heavily armed ASG militants. Some 10,000 soldiers had been deployed to the area, with a naval blockade ordered on the shores of Basilan and Sulu.

“The threat is imminent... There is only one direction that they are heading, and it is towards our shores.

“We will not allow them to enter. Our security forces will arrest them the minute they pass the country’s maritime border,” Fuzi said.

National Security Council (NSC) director-general General Tan Sri Zulkifeli Mohd Zin told the NST that additional assets and manpower had been deployed to beef up security along the east coast of Sabah, and that they were ready to face any eventualities.

“The military, together with Esscom, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and police, are working together to hold the fort,” said Zulkifeli, who is also armed forces chief.

Fuzi said police believe reports that hundreds of Filipinos currently (at press time) seeking refuge on islands close to the Malaysian maritime border were credible.

“They are waiting to cross into Sabah and assimilate with their relatives and friends, who stand ready to harbour them.

“We had anticipated this and have been on alert since the Philippine government announced that they were going all out to eliminate militants in the southern Philippines.

“Intelligence suggests that there are some 400 Filipinos on the islands, including villagers fearing for their safety... But among them are also ASG elements,” he said.

Esscom commander Datuk Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid, who also confirmed the presence of scores of fleeing Filipinos near the country’s maritime borders, said the enhanced security presence along the maritime border had served as a good deterrence against their encroachment.

Between Tuesday and Thursday, police picked up 37 Filipinos from Sandakan waters.

Eighteen of them were from Basilan, while the rest said they were from Jolo — the ASG’s stronghold.

They had tried to enter Sabah through various entry points, including Pamaguan, Tanjung Nunuyan and Nunuyan.

All the immigrants who failed to produce their identity and travel documents had told police that they were fleeing from the ongoing conflict. Fuzi said police, especially the Special Branch, had intensified monitoring and surveillance in areas identified as “target locations” for the fleeing Filipinos.

He named Kinabatangan, Semporna, Lahad Datu and Kunak as districts known to play host to those whose origins goes back to the southern Philippines.

News began circulating early yesterday of scores of Filipinos being holed up on the islands of Taganak and Bakkungan, hoping to make a dash for Sandakan.

It is an hour-long speedboat ride from Bakkungan and Taganak, in Philippine waters, to Pulau Bakkungan Kecil, off Sandakan.

From there, it takes about an hour to reach Sandakan. Sabah marine police chief Assistant Commissioner Mohamad Mandun, meanwhile, played down the threat, saying that in such a situation, it was normal to expect an exodus of Filipinos from the affected areas making a beeline for Sabah.

"Having said that, we are conducting continuous special marine operations and are responding to the latest information we receive over movements of illegal immigrants in Sandakan waters.

“They (the Filipinos) are stationed and waiting at nearby islands close to the border and would try to enter Sabah once they think the coast is clear,” he said.

Mohamad said they were mere “fleeing villagers” when asked if there was a likelihood of any of them being terrorists.

“If they are fighters, I don’t think they will travel with others outside of their circle.

“We have spoken to them (the 37 currently arrested so far), and, based on our interrogation, there was nothing to suggest that they are members of any terrorist groups.

“However, they will, of course, be subjected to further assessment by the intelligence unit,” he said, adding that the detainees had been handed over to the Immigration Department for further action.

Speaking on the marine police’s operations, he said the areas of special focus included the stretch of water between Sungai Batu and Tabangka, as well as the area around Nunuyan island.

“We are committed to curbing the influx of illegal immigrants, and I strongly urge Sabahans residing in the coastal areas to inform the authorities immediately if they see any suspicious activities,” Mohamad said.

A WhatsApp message that had been circulating since Wednesday had claimed that police had arrested two Abu Sayyaf members in Kinabatangan district.

Kinabatangan police chief Superintendent A Sahak Rahmat denied the claim, which had also said that the men, who were armed with M16 rifles, had come out of hiding at the Kampung Sinar Jaya Muslim cemetery in the district and surrendered to the police.

On Tuesday, police arrested a Filipino man, 33, and his daughter, 13, in a raid on a house at Kampung Mangkalinau in Sandakan.

Police found 30 bullets for an M16 assault rifle, three spent shell casings, a sword, walkie-talkies, handphones, and military fatigues.

It has not been established if he was an ASG member. State Criminal Investigation Department chief Datuk Salehhudin Abdul Rahman had said that probes to ascertain if the man, who tested positive for drugs, was positively linked to any militant groups, were ongoing.

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