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Malaysian Deputy PM Zahid Co-Chairs Sabah Security Meet

Colin Forsythe
Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
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Philippine soldiers wade through a river in Inabanga town, Bohol province, as they search for Islamic militants on the run, April 12, 2017.
Philippine soldiers wade through a river in Inabanga town, Bohol province, as they search for Islamic militants on the run, April 12, 2017.

Updated at 8:45 a.m. ET on 2017-04-18

Malaysian government officials held a high-level meeting Monday in the eastern state of Sabah on safeguarding the region near the Islamic militant-infested southern Philippines from kidnappings at sea amid other security concerns.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and state Chief Minister Musa Aman co-chaired the first meeting of the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE) Advisory Board, which included the national security chief and heads of the armed forces, national police and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).

ESSZONE's advisory board was established by Prime Minister Najib Razak in January to strengthen security in eastern Sabah and improve coordination among various agencies working in the region, the state-run Bernama news agency reported.

“This is to ensure that security threats such as kidnapping for ransom, smuggling, entry of illegal immigrants and a second infiltration by the Sulu Sultanate militants can be prevented or appropriately tacked,” the statement said, according to Bernama. It was referring to an incursion in the state by an armed group from the Philippines calling itself the Royal Sulu Army, and that local security forces put down four years ago.

The meeting in state capital Kota Kinabalu took place against the backdrop of ongoing concerns about maritime kidnappings carried out by Abu Sayyaf Group militants based in the southern Philippines. Since 2016, dozens of Malaysian and Indonesian sailors have been abducted by suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen off ships sailing in waters between northern Borneo island and the southern Philippines. Most of the hostages have been freed.

‘They can enter Sabah easily’

A Malaysian security source said the government is concerned about the threats of movements across the Sabah-Philippines border by militants linked to Islamic State. Members of several militant groups based in the southern Philippines have pledged their allegiance to the Middle East-based extremist group.

“They can enter Sabah easily and easily hide among the huge numbers of migrants already living and working in Sabah,” the source told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.

Last week, Philippine forces killed six suspected ASG gunmen, while thwarting a raid by Islamic militants on Bohol island, a popular tourist destination in the Central Philippines. The slain suspects included Muammar Askali (also known as Abu Rami), an Islamic State-linked spokesman for ASG who allegedly had participated in kidnappings and executions carried out by Abu Sayyaf, the Philippine military said.

At least three southern Philippine militant groups linked with Islamic State were involved in the Bohol raid in which militants were allegedly plotting to carry out a bombing and kidnap tourists from the area that lies far from their traditional strongholds in the south, according to a report by the Associated Press over the weekend.

Apart from Askali, another key Abu Sayyaf figure, Edimar Isnain was among the six militants who died during a shootout that also killed three soldiers and a police officer, according to the AP report that cited information from three anonymous Philippine security officials. Edimar had worked with Malaysian and Indonesian militants in building bombs and training ASG recruits to handle explosives.

Although Askali was accused of playing a direct role in some maritime kidnappings and the video-taped execution of hostages, including Malaysian Bernard Then, the militant’s death does not mean that cross-border crime will diminish, the security source in Malaysia told BenarNews.

“With the Philippines military in hot pursuit of the militants, we have to make sure they don’t slip across into our borders. They can hide out for long periods of time, and then strike when least expected,” the official added.

New Sabah role for defense minister

In other developments related to security in Sabah, the Malaysian government announced last week that Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein would add to his portfolio a new role as the so-called Special Functions Minister in charge of security in the eastern state.

“My main task now is to help the prime minister with safeguarding security in Sabah,” The Star newspaper quoted Hishammuddin as saying on Monday.

However, the defense minister did not attend Monday’s ESSZONE Advisory Board meeting in Sabah. He spoke to the newspaper in Kuala Lumpur after taking part in a monthly assembly at the Defense Ministry.

An earlier version reported incorrectly that ESSZONE was established by the prime minister in January 2017.

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