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Navy intercepts 2 boats from Sabah.

Byline: Julie S. Alipala

ZAMBOANGA CITY -- The Philippine Navy intercepted two motorboats carrying 80 people from strife-torn Sabah on Friday. But Capt. Rene Yongque of the Navy's Task Force 62 based in Tawi-Tawi quickly clarified that none of the boats' passengers or crew were armed and that they were not part of the group of Sulu gunmen who had battled with Malaysian security forces in Sabah.

"I repeat, they are not armed nor were they followers of (Jamalul) Kiram (III); they are just ordinary people that may have fled (the violence) in Sabah," Yongque told the Inquirer by phone.

He said Navy personnel on board Auxiliary Patrol Ship 291 were helping secure the country's border with Malaysia amid reports that Kiram's followers were heading for Sabah when they spotted the two boats headed for Tawi-Tawi.

Yongque said the Navy patrol ship escorted the two boats to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi's capital.

"Those people inside the motor launches were evacuees and they will immediately be turned over to the Task Force Basulta on Sabah Crisis for processing," he said.

Earlier this week, the Tawi-Tawi police reported that a boatload of people who fled the Sabah violence arrived on Sibuto Island. Senior Supt. Joselito Salido, Tawi-Tawi police director, indicated in a report that not all of those who took the boat were Filipinos, saying, "Majority of the refugees are Filipinos who have been living in Sabah for many years already."

Some local radio stations and newspapers reported last week that the Tawi-Tawi police had "intercepted" some 70 Kiram supporters, who were trying to slip out of the island-province to go to Sabah.

Efforts by the Inquirer to verify the reports failed as Salido could not be contacted. It was Salido who reportedly disclosed the interception of Kiram's followers as they prepared to leave Bongao town.

During a visit here Thursday, Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima warned police officers, particularly those from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, against sailing to Sabah to provide support to Kiram's men there.

"We will apply the full force of the law. Those who will take unauthorized duties other than their normal police duties will be declared AWOL (absent without leave) and will be discharged from duty. They will also be criminally charged," Purisima said.

Purisima also said that he had ordered the deployment of policemen as security escorts for the wife of Agbimuddin Kiram in Simunul town in Tawi-Tawi "to protect her and her family from any harm."

He said he had talked with local religious leaders and asked them to help in dissuading Moro National Liberation Front members from sailing to Sabah to reinforce Agbimuddin's force.

More than 50 of Agbimuddin's men have died since fighting broke out in Sabah, according to a report by Malaysian security officials. Purisima said he was told there was no truth to the reports of MNLF men trying to go to Sabah and that these were the concoction of "some quarters" to sow more confusion.

He said an investigation is underway to determine who helped facilitate Agbimuddin and his group's expedition to Sabah. Philippine border security units have come under heavy criticism for failing to stop boatloads of armed men as they sailed toward the Malaysian state early last month.

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Publication:Philippines Daily Inquirer (Makati City, Philippines)
Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:Mar 8, 2013
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