MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - A charter boat will go to Sabah to repatriate part of the group of Filipinos engaged in a standoff with Malaysian security forces, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Sunday, February 24.
The ship is on a "humanitarian mission" to fetch and ferry back the women and civilians among the group of 180 Filipinos holed out in Lahud Datu, Sabah.
On board the boat -- which is to sail from Bongao, Tawi-Tawi to Tanduo, Lahud Datu -- are Filipino-Muslim leaders as well as social workers and medical personnel.
The DFA said in a statement that the Malaysian government was informed about the vessel's departure on Saturday, February 23, but Malaysian foreign minister Anifah Aman told AFP he had "yet to be informed on this matter".
Return home, DFA tells group
The ship is being prepositioned offshore while talks with the group of Filipinos are underway, just a few hours before the deadline set by Malaysia for the Filipinos to leave the area.
"We sent the ship to Lahad Datu on a humanitarian mission. We are deeply concerned about the presence of five women and other civilians in the group, and we urge them to board the ship without delay and return home," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said in the statement.
Photo by Carlos Santamaria
Del Rosario again called on the Filipinos defying the Malaysian security forces to return to their homes and families while the DFA addresses the concerns they have raised regarding the Philippines' historical claim over Sabah.
"Please do so for your own safety," he added.
Filipinos told to stay by sultan
Del Rosario on Thursday insisted now is not the time to discuss the Sabah claim and urged the militants to return home.
He said the group numbered some 180, with 30 armed escorts, although the sultan's spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, last week put the figure at 400, including 20 bearing arms.
Idjirani said the Sulu sultan had given the Filipinos his blessing to reside in Sabah and they were determined to resist efforts to expel them.
The Islamic Sultanate of Sulu once controlled parts of Borneo, including the site of the standoff, as well as southern Philippine islands, until the Muslim rulers leased northern Borneo to the Europeans in the 1870s.
While the sultanate's authority gradually faded as Western colonial powers exerted their influence over the region, it continued to receive lease payments for Sabah.
Heirs to the sultanate still receive nominal annual compensation from Malaysia under a long-standing agreement.
One of the demands from the sultan's followers is an increase in the amount of compensation paid. - with reports from Carlos Santamaria & Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com