MANILA— With more than 50 Philippine citizens reported dead in clashes in the Malaysian province of Sabah, officials in Manila says it may be time for a surrender. The fighting started when about 200 people from the southwestern Philippines entered a town in Sabah, re-asserted a centuries- old claim to the eastern Malaysian province and refused to leave.
Philippine government officials say for weeks they have been calling for followers of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu to surrender and leave. But the group's leader, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, has refused.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a televised briefing Friday that the Philippines is exhausting all options to bring peace.
"We continue to feel strongly, one way to save lives is to lay down their arms. Our concern is a win-win solution for them as well as for us - for them to be able to preserve their lives,” he said.
Malaysian authorities started their military operation against the group a week ago. This week they intensified the campaign with a 30-minute air raid in the vicinity of Lahad Datu, where the group had hunkered down for weeks.
Malaysian state media reported 52 Filipinos and eight Malaysian officers have been killed in various skirmishes.
On Thursday Kiram called for a cease-fire by his armed followers, after United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released a statement urging an end to the fighting and calling all parties to come together to talk. But Malaysia rejected the Kiram group’s proposal to cease hostilities, saying they would only accept a surrender.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Spokesman Raul Hernandez says if Kiram's followers give up their weapons it would end the bloodshed.
"Because there was a rejection from the Malaysian side, it could be that this would be the last remaining option for the Kirams,” he explained.
Malaysian police have been going after reportedly armed Philippine nationals whom they say fled from encounters with authorities in the area. Inspector General of Police Ismail Omar says the pursuit is ongoing.
"We will continue the operation as there is no sign the enemies will lay down their weapons and surrender," he said.
The centuries-old Sultanate of Sulu includes several islands in the southwestern Philippines and Sabah in eastern Malaysia. And the Kiram group, which is headed by one of several claimants to the Sultanate, has been receiving a nominal rental fee from the Malaysian government for Sabah since Malaysia became independent of British rule in 1963.
Since February 9, the family had been demanding talks with the government to try to increase the fee.
Philippine Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda says the group's claim to Sabah is now being studied by the Philippine government. The last sultan recognized by the Philippine government was Mahakuttah A. Kiram, who reigned from 1974 until1986.