The group of Filipino intruders have vowed to defend themselves should Malaysian police move in with force to evict them from the coastal village in Sabah that they have occupied since earlier this month.
“We are ready to defend ourselves,” said Azzimudie Kiram, the brother of self-proclaimed Sulu sultan Jamalul Kiram.
Azzimudie, who is in his mid-60s, is leading the armed group in Kampung Tanduo, some 130km from Lahad Datu town.
In a phone interview with Malaysiakini this morning, Azzimudie repeatedly stressed that it has never been the group’s intention to clash with the Malaysian authorities.
“We want to live peacefully on our own land, but they are insisting on driving us out by force,” said Azzimudie, who sounded calm throughout the conversation.
“We want to talk to the Malaysian authorities peacefully and return to our land. Malaysians have enjoyed for many years the income of Sabah.”
Asked which Malaysian official he wishes to negotiate with, Azzimudie replied that he is leaving the negotiations to his brother Jamalul (left) in Manila.
Yesterday deputy police chief Khalid Abu Bakar had said the police intend to end the stand-off , which had been going on since Feb 12.
"We will end the stand-off and I advise people not to worry. God willing, we will solve the matter as soon as possible," he had told reporters in Lahad Datu yesterday.
Azzimudie has also rebutted previous media reports which claimed that there were internal squabbles among his men, after several of them wanted to surrender to the Malaysian authorities and subsequent gunfire was heard.
“No, no such gunfire, my people are under my control. It is not true. Those are false reports to weaken us,” he said.
Despite the blockage which had been set up by the police to cut off their food supply, Azzimudie claimed that his men have been surviving on bananas, while some local sympatisers have been supplying them with other resources as well.
“They are fine,” he replied, adding that no medical assistance is needed for his men.
Philippine president's appeal rejected
His brother, the ailing 74-year-old Jamalul, yesterday rejected the appeal of Philippine President Benigno Aquino for him to recall his men at Lahad Datu.
"I have already given my orders to them. And they have to stay put in that area," he was quoted as saying by Philippine Daily Inquirer.
According to the Philippine daily, Jamalul said his men would not go back home "until an arrangement has been done by our officials and the president, and arranged accordingly with a written agreement signed by the parties concerned".
Jamalul said that in the last conversation he had with Azzimudie on Monday, his younger brother told him that he and their 235 followers were firm in their decision to stay despite the food blockade.
In a statement read by his daughter Jacel Kiram, the sultan reiterated that Azzimudie and his men "will not initiate the violence... But we are prepared to defend our lives and aspirations."
He said the Sabah issue "can be peacefully settled without threat, but in a diplomatic way."
"Is it hard for Malaysia to sit down and diplomatically settle the issue on the claim? All we ask is for Malaysia to sit down with the Kirams and come up with a win-win solution," he stressed.
Jamalul, who has been suffering from diabetes for years, said he is ready to go to jail if the government filed a case against him and members of his clan.
"It's okay with me. I'm already 74 years old. An old man going to jail? It's okay.
"I cannot understand what violation I made... I have always respected the constitution.
"My brother went down there with his men and settled down in their own homeland. Is that a violation?" he queried.
Aquino has warned that legal action would be taken against him while Philippine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima ( left ) told the daily last night that the sultan could possibly be charged.
Point of no return
At a press conference yesterday, Aquino again called on Jamalul to order his followers in Sabah to come home, saying the situation was nearing "the point of no return."
"We are fast approaching that point," Aquino said, apparently referring to the 48-hour extended deadline imposed by Malaysian authorities for the group to leave Sabah which has expired last night.
"The right thing to do now would be to order your followers to return home as soon as possible... If you choose not to cooperate, the full force of the laws of the state will be used to achieve justice for all who have been put in harm's way."
Aquino ( right ) reminded Jamalul that he might be violating Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, which states that the Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy, as well as the nation's penal code, which punishes those who "provoke or give occasion for a war... or expose Filipino citizens to reprisals on their persons or property."
With the stand-off possibly heading towards a violent clash, Manila has strengthened the efforts to resolve it through diplomatic means.
Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Jose Brillantes has flown to Kuala Lumpur to help resolve the situation.
"We see that there would be a need for more people to help out in the coordination work... He's there to help ambassador (Eduardo Malaya) to help in coordinating the peaceful resolution of this issue," said Philippine department of foreign affairs spokesperson, Raul Hernandez.
"Being a senior diplomat and being a former ambassador in Malaysia, he will also have some contacts and he would be able to coordinate well with the Malaysian authorities to be bring the group home," Hernandez said.
A ship the Philippines plans to use to ferry Kiram's supporters home remains on standby in Tawi-Tawi.