KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) ? Malaysian security forces attacked a group of armed Filipinos early Tuesday to end the group's three-week occupation of a Borneo village, the prime minister said after the siege turned violent and became Malaysia's biggest security crisis in years.
Najib Razak confirmed the assault was launched Tuesday morning after clashes have killed eight policemen and he declared over the weekend that security forces were authorized to take any action deemed necessary.
The main group of intruders comprises nearly 200 members of a Philippine Muslim clan, some bearing rifles, who slipped past naval patrols last month, landed at a remote Malaysian coastal village in eastern Sabah state's Lahad Datu district and insisted the territory was theirs.
Nineteen Filipino gunmen have also been slain since Friday in skirmishes that shocked Malaysians unaccustomed to such violence in their country, which borders insurgency-plagued southern provinces in the Philippines and Thailand.
The trespassers are surrounded by security forces as well as an undetermined number of other armed Filipinos suspected to have encroached on two other districts within 300 kilometers (200 miles) of Lahad Datu.
Army reinforcements from other states in Malaysia were being deployed to Sabah and would help police bolster public confidence by patrolling various parts of the state's eastern seaboard, Sabah police chief Hamza Taib said Monday.
The Philippine government asked Malaysia on Monday to exercise maximum tolerance to avoid further bloodshed.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario headed to Kuala Lumpur for talks on the crisis with his Malaysian counterpart, spokesman Raul Hernandez said. The Philippines will also ask that Malaysia allow a Philippine navy ship with medical and social workers to travel to Lahad Datu to care for the wounded and take them and others back home, Hernandez said in Manila.
Some activists say the crisis illustrates an urgent need to review border security and immigration policies for Sabah, where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have headed in recent decades ? many of them illegally ? to seek work and stability.
Groups of Filipino militants have occasionally crossed into Sabah to stage kidnappings, including one that involved island resort vacationers in 2000. Malaysia has repeatedly intensified its patrols, but the long and porous sea border with the Philippines remains difficult to guard.
Some in Muslim-majority Malaysia advocated patience in handling the Lahad Datu intruders who arrived Feb. 9. But the deaths of the Malaysian police officers, including six who were ambushed while inspecting a waterfront village in a separate Sabah district on Saturday, have triggered widespread alarm over the possibility of more such intrusions.
The Filipinos who landed in Lahad Datu, a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, have rebuffed calls for them to leave, claiming Sabah belonged to their royal sultanate for over a century and adding that Malaysia has been paying a paltry amount to lease the vast territory with many palm plantations for decades. The group is led by a brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu. The identities of other suspected Filipino intruders whose presence became known in two more Sabah districts over the weekend were unclear.
The Malaysian government has not commented on the claim that it has been paying rent to the Philippine sultanate for Sabah.
For the second time in two days, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III went on national TV to urge the Filipino group in Lahad Datu to lay down their arms, warning that the situation could worsen and endanger about 800,000 Filipinos settlers there.
The crisis could have wide-ranging political ramifications in both countries. Some fear it might undermine peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
It also could jeopardize public confidence in Malaysia's long-ruling National Front coalition, which is gearing up for general elections that must be held by the end of June. The coalition requires strong support from voters in Sabah to fend off an opposition alliance that hopes to end more than five decades of federal rule by the National Front.
The U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur issued an advisory Monday urging American citizens to avoid traveling to much of Sabah's east coast, which includes towns that are embarkation points for nearby diving resort islands, because of the potential for more violence.
Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.