Followers of a Philippine sultan who crossed to the Malaysian state of Sabah this month will not leave and are reclaiming the area as their ancestral territory, the sultan has said amid a tense standoff.

Sultan Jamalul Kiram said that his followers - about 400 people including 20 armed men - were resolute in staying despite being cornered by security forces, with the Kuala Lumpur government insisting the group return to the Philippines.

"Why should we leave our own home? In fact they [the Malaysians] are paying rent [to us]," he told reporters in Manila on Sunday.

"Our followers will stay in [the Sabah town of] Lahad Datu. Nobody will be sent to the Philippines. Sabah is our home," he said. The sultan did not directly threaten violence but said "there will be no turning back for us".

Malaysian officials have said that many in the group have weapons, but Kiram insisted his followers made the trip unarmed. "If they have arms, they were already in Sabah," the sultan said.

Autonomy agreement 

The southern Philippine-based sultanate once controlled parts of Borneo, including the site of the standoff, and its heirs have been receiving a nominal yearly compensation package from Malaysia under a long-standing agreement for possession of Sabah.

Kiram said he was prompted to send the group to Sabah after the sultanate was left out of a framework agreement sealed in October between Manila and Filipino Muslim rebels, which paves the way for an autonomous area in the southern Philippines that is home to the Muslim minority of the largely-Christian nation.

The sultanate's spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, later said the sultan's brother Raja Muda Abimuddin Kiram, who led the group to Sabah, had told him via telephone that the party was preparing to stay.

"The objective is to reside now in that place permanently, considering the sultanate owns Sabah by rights of sovereignty," he told AFP news agency.

On Thursday Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said 80 to 100 armed men were involved in the standoff.

Idjirani said the group would not instigate violence but would resist if provoked.

"We recognise the capability of Malaysia. We don't have the arms and capacity but we have the historical truth," he said, adding that the group's "fate is to see the recognition they are entitled to... or they die defending their ancestral rights".

Idjirani said Philippine President Benigno Aquino's senior aides had been in contact with the sultan and were willing to deliver a letter to the Malaysian government on his behalf for negotiations.

Source: Agencies