KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Authorities in Malaysia pressed charges on Wednesday against members of a group of armed men who clashed with security forces after landing in a remote coastal area and pressing a 19th century claim to the land.
Security forces are still hunting down the remnants of the group that sailed in mid-February to Sabah state on Borneo island, eventually triggering battles that left up to 71 dead. Nine of the dead were Malaysian security peronnel.
Bernama news agency said eight men, aged between 17 and 66, were chaged with terrorism and waging war against Malaysia after appearing in a heavily guarded court in the coastal town of Lahad Datu, site of most of the fighting.
The men entered no plea. They could face life imprisonment if found guilty of terrorism and the death penalty on the charge of waging war.
Neither police nor the attorney general’s office could be reached for comment.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been under pressure to take a tough stand after security forces took no action against the intruders for two weeks. Najib must call a national election in weeks and his party, in power since independence from Britain in 1957, faces a tough contest.
Ties with the Philippines, periodically strained by security and migration issues, could be further soured by the case.
The group of about 200 engaged in weeks of negotiations over their claim to the region before Malaysian forces mounted an all-out assault in oil palm-fringed coastal areas.
Militants who escaped the onslaught went into hiding, surfacing occasionally for gun battles with Malaysian forces.
The Filipino group is demanding recognition and increased payment from Malaysia for their claim to Sabah, part of Borneo leased by the Sultanate of Sulu to British colonialists in the 19th century.
Members say they are a part of the Sultan of Sulu’s army and offered a unilateral ceasefire rejected by Najib.
Reporting By Siva Sithraputhran, Editing by Niluksi Koswanage and Ron Popeski