Philippines sends mercy ship to Malaysia

The Philippines was Sunday night preparing to send a mercy ship to pick up scores of followers of a Filipino sultan who entered the Malaysian state of Sabah to press his territorial claims, the foreign office said.

The "humanitarian ship" was to depart the southern-most Philippine island province of Tawi-Tawi before midnight and head to Lahad Datu on Borneo island, where dozens of followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram have been locked in a tense stand-off with Malaysian authorities for two weeks.

The Filipinos have been holed up in a small coastal area of Lahad Datu town, where they have remained surrounded by security forces since February 12 as they pursue their claim to settle in the state, which used to be a part of the Sultanate of Sulu.

"As we have stated on countless occasions previously, we call on the entire group to go back to their homes and families, even at the same time, we are addressing the core issues they have raised," Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a statement.

"Please do so for your own safety," he added.

Aboard the mercy ship were Filipino Muslim leaders, social workers and medical personnel, del Rosario's statement said, stressing that the government "was deeply concerned" about the presence of women among the group.

The ship was due to drop anchor offshore as talks to convince the group to withdraw peacefully continued, the statement said.

The Philippines informed Malaysia through its embassy in Manila of the move on Saturday, it added.

Malaysian foreign minister Anifah Aman told AFP he had "yet to be informed on this matter". Ministry officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Del Rosario's statement 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 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 stand-off, as well as southern Philippine islands.

The sultanate leased northern Borneo to 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.

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