Malaysia has launched air strikes and mortar attacks against nearly 200 Filipinos occupying a Borneo coastal village in a bid to end a bizarre three-week siege which has turned into a security nightmare for both Malaysia and the Philippines.
The assault follows firefights over the last week which killed eight Malaysian police officers and 19 Filipino gunmen, some of whom were members of a Muslim clan that shocked Malaysia and the neighbouring Philippines by slipping by boat past naval patrols last month and storming an obscure village in Borneo's eastern Sabah state.
The crisis has sparked jitters about a spread of instability in Sabah, which is rich in timber and oil resources. Unknown numbers of other armed Filipinos are feared to have encroached on other districts in the area recently.
More than seven hours after fighter jets were deployed, Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said no injuries occurred among Malaysian police and military personnel who went in to raid houses near palm oil plantations there.
"On the enemy's side, we have to wait because the operation is ongoing. We have to be careful," he said, refusing to elaborate on whether there were Filipino casualties or captives.
National police chief Ismail Omar said ground forces encountered resistance from gunmen firing at them. Police were slowly combing an area of about 1.5 square miles to look for the Filipinos, he said.
The clansmen, armed with rifles and grenade launchers, had refused to leave the area, staking a long-dormant claim to Malaysia's entire state of Sabah, which they insisted was their ancestral birthright.
Prime Minister Najib Razak defended the offensive, saying Malaysia had made every effort to resolve the siege peacefully since the presence of the group in Lahad Datu district became known on February 12, including holding talks to encourage the intruders to leave without facing any serious legal repercussions.
"For our sovereignty and stability, we will not allow even an inch of Malaysian territory to be threaten or taken by anyone," he said.
The Philippines government had urged Malaysia to exercise maximum tolerance to avoid further bloodshed.