In Pictures: Fleeing fighting in Malaysia

Thousands have fled Sabah after forces loyal to a Filipino sultan raided the state and claimed it as their own.


Bonggao, Philippines - Filipino Muslims living in Malaysia's Sabah province are continuing to flee the armed conflict between supporters of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and Malaysian security forces.

The Philippine government is bracing for an influx of Filipinos trying to avoid the standoff. Hundreds have already departed by boat and landed at Bonggao Port in the Philippines' Tawi-Tawi province.

About 200 members of the sultan's royal Muslim clan, from the southern Philippines, landed in the coastal village of Lahad Datu in Sabah in February to claim the territory as their own, citing ownership documents from the late 1800s.

Fighting erupted in March and dozens of the sultan's fighters and at least 10 Malaysian security forces have been killed in skirmishes since.

"The police and armed forces will continue to go all out to get these terrorists and their supporters until they are totally destroyed and until the area is free of all threats," Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Saturday.

Sulu is a grouping of islands that lie between Sabah and the Philippines' Mindanao island. For centuries, the Sulu sultanate was an Islamic state that ruled the southern Philippines and parts of what is now Malaysia's Sabah state.

Following the raid, the Malaysian government cracked down on undocumented Filipinos in Sabah, who then left for the southern provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi in the southern Philippines.

Javier Jimenez, chief of staff of the state's Department of Social Welfare and Development, said the government would start a processing centre in Tawi-Tawi's Taganak township as part of the central government's effort to help people displaced by the standoff.

"This effort shows that the government is doing everything [it can]. This venture will ensure that they are not illegal entrants and will entitle them to avail of legal employment when they go back to Sabah," Jimenez told Al Jazeera.

Jimenez said more than 95,000 Filipinos are currently in Sabah without work permits.

Abraham J Idjirani, spokesman of the sultanate, told the Manila Bulletin newspaper that the Muslim Filipino force now had 500 "volunteers" from Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and Basilan, and about 80 percent were armed.

The leader of the sultan's fighters - Rajah Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, one of his brothers - has no plans to leave Sabah now that he has more men, said Idjirani.

"The Malaysian military knows where they are, but not the specific area," Idjirani said. "Even if the rajah doesn't stay in one permanent area, their stronghold has widened."