By Jim Gomez , AP
MANILA–The Philippines is sending a navy ship to waters off eastern Malaysia to bring back some of about 180 Filipinos who became locked in a standoff with Malaysian authorities after traveling to the area to claim the territory, officials said Sunday.
The Filipino group, which includes an armed security team of about 30 men, arrived in Sabah state’s coastal district of Lahad Datu about two weeks ago, claiming Sabah belongs to their royal clan based in the southern Philippine province of Sulu.
Malaysian authorities regard them as armed intruders and have attempted to persuade them to leave peacefully, initially giving a deadline of Friday. The deadline has been extended to Tuesday, a Malaysian official said.
Philippine and Malaysian authorities have said the group’s demands should be addressed through diplomatic channels.
The Philippine ship will be prepositioned off Lahad Datu while talks to persuade the Filipinos to return home continue, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said. It said it notified Malaysia on Saturday of the deployment of the ship, which will carry an entourage including social workers and medical personnel.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the navy ship was on a humanitarian mission to try to pick up five women and some of the other group members. “We urge them to board the ship without delay and return home,” he said.
Del Rosario also repeated a plea for the entire group to return home to their families in the southern Philippines while “we are addressing the core issues they have raised.”
“Please do so for your own safety,” he said.
Malaysian police have not said what kind of weapons the Filpinos possess. Details from the remote area, about 500 kilometers (300 miles) from Sabah’s capital city, have been scarce.
Security along Malaysia’s sea border with the Philippines has been problematic for Sabah, where tens of thousands of impoverished Filipinos have tried to migrate over the past few decades.
In 2000, Muslim extremists from the southern Philippines slipped twice into Sabah and abducted people for ransom, including European tourists and Malaysian workers from a diving resort.
One of the most recent kidnappings involved two Malaysians snatched from a plantation in Lahad Datu in November. They were believed to have been taken to the southern Philippines.