FELDA SAHABAT, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Thursday rejected the offer of a ceasefire made by a group of Philippine militants staking a claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah and demanded they surrender unconditionally.
At least 27 people have died, including eight Malaysian policemen, since an initial clash last Friday which was followed by an all-out assault by army troops on Tuesday. Security officials say many of the militants, believed to number about 200, likely escaped Tuesday’s attack and are still at large.
“We want the militants to unconditionally surrender and hand over their weapons,” Najib told a news conference at the Felda Sahabat palm oil plantation in Sabah, making his first trip to the conflict area since the standoff began a month ago.
If they did not surrender, Najib said the military would continue to track them down “for as long as it takes to eliminate them”.
The confrontation in Sabah in Malaysia’s part of Borneo island was sparked when the armed group arrived from the nearby southern Philippines to press an old claim to the resource-rich region.
It has strained relations between the Southeast Asian neighbours and prompted speculation that Najib may delay a national election he had been expected to call as early as March and which must be held by June.
Najib said he had conveyed Malaysia’s position to Philippine President Benigno Aquino in a telephone conversation on Thursday.
The self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, offered a unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day.
“We hope Malaysia will reciprocate this gesture,” Abraham Idjirani, the sultan’s spokesman, said in Manila.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon urged an end to the violence and talks for a peaceful resolution.
Malaysian security officials said they had found the bodies of 13 suspected militants on Wednesday, but it was unclear if the dead were from Tuesday’s assault or previous clashes. They gave no details on casualties or operations on Thursday.
Reporting by Angie Teo and Manny Mogato in Manila; Writing by Siva Sithraputhran; Editing by Stuart Grudgings