Malaysian authorities said they arrested 22 men including 12 foreigners for suspected links to a foiled uprising against the government of the eastern state of Sabah three years ago.
“We have reasons to believe that these men [were] allegedly involved in efforts to topple the government, and associated with the Royal Sulu Force,” Sabah Police Chief Abdul Rashid Harun told BenarNews on Thursday, confirming the arrests of the 22 suspects under Malaysia’s Security Offences (Special Measures) Act.
The Royal Malaysia Police arrested the men as part of Gasak III, an operation mounted across Sabah over the weekend by the state’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) and the police department’s Special Task Force on Organized Crime (STAFOC), he said.
Abdul Rashid did not reveal the nationalities of the 12 foreigners, but said that two of them had birth certificates stating they were born in Sabah, and another man had a visitor’s pass from the nearby Philippines. The other nine foreigners had no identification papers, and the suspects ranged in age from 22 to 75 years.
In February and March 2013, Malaysian security forces put down an insurrection by some 200 fighters from Sulu – a neighboring province in the southern Philippines – who identified themselves as the Royal Army of Sulu and followers of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III.
Seventy-two people, including 56 Sulu gunmen, 10 members of the Malaysian security forces and six civilians were killed in fighting spread over several weeks.
The Filipino group demanded to be recognized as representatives of the Sulu Sultanate that used to rule Sabah. In the past the sultanate was spread over several southern Philippine islands and parts of Borneo, including Sabah before it became a British protectorate in the 19th century. Sabah was incorporated into Malaysia in 1963, but the country still pays token rent to the Sulu Sultanate on an annual basis.
“Ten Malaysians and the other 10 foreigners were detained on Saturday which was the second day of the ‘Op Gasak III.’ The remaining two suspects were arrested on Monday at a location in Ranau,” Abdul Rashid said.
Raids took place in Lahad Datu, Sungai Bilis and Tanjung Batu – parts of eastern Sabah where the foiled invasion and insurrection occurred. The operation, which was launched on Friday, resulted from months of planning and gathering of intelligence from sources including locals, Sabah’s police chief added.
Since the conflict three years ago, the ESSCOM is responsible for overseeing security from northern Kudat to south-eastern Tawau.
Abdul Rashid said police still were trying to determine the suspects’ individual roles in the 2013 conflict.
“All of them were most likely followers [of the sultan of Sulu], some were active informers,” he said.
The arrests were announced Wednesday night in a message posted on Twitter by Malaysian Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar.
The 22 suspects were being held at police headquarters in the state capital of Kota Kinabalu, Abdul Rashid said.