Malaysia sent hundreds of soldiers to a Borneo state on Monday to help neutralize armed Filipino intruders who have killed eight police officers in the country's bloodiest security emergency in years.
Nineteen Filipino gunmen have also been slain since Friday in skirmishes that shocked Malaysians unaccustomed to such violence in their country, which borders insurgency-plagued southern provinces in the Philippines and Thailand.
The main group of intruders comprises nearly 200 members of a Philippine Muslim clan, some bearing rifles, who slipped past naval patrols last month, landed at a remote Malaysian coastal village in eastern Sabah state's Lahad Datu district and insisted the territory was theirs.
Public attention focused Monday on how to minimize casualties while apprehending the trespassers, who are surrounded by security forces as well as an undetermined number of other armed Filipinos suspected to have encroached on two other districts within 300 kilometers (200 miles) of Lahad Datu.
Army reinforcements from other states in Malaysia were being deployed to Sabah and would help police bolster public confidence by patrolling various parts of the state's eastern seaboard, Sabah police chief Hamza Taib said.
"The situation is under control now," Hamza said. "There will be cooperation" between the military and the police, he said.
He declined to elaborate on specific strategies or on a call by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for lethal action.
"There is no way out other than launching a counter-attack to eliminate" the intruders, Malaysia's national news agency, Bernama, quoted Mahathir as saying Sunday. "Although many of them will be killed, this cannot be avoided because they had attacked Sabah, and not the other way round."
Malaysia's current leader, Prime Minister Najib Razak, declared over the weekend that security forces were authorized to "take any action deemed necessary."
The Philippine government asked Malaysia on Monday to exercise maximum tolerance to avoid further bloodshed.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario headed to Kuala Lumpur for talks on the crisis with his Malaysian counterpart, spokesman Raul Hernandez said. The Philippines will also ask that Malaysia allow a Philippine navy ship with medical and social workers to travel to Lahad Datu to care for the wounded and take them and others back home, Hernandez said in Manila.
Some activists say the crisis illustrates an urgent need to review border security and immigration policies for Sabah, where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have headed in recent decades — many of them illegally — to seek work and stability.
Groups of Filipino militants have occasionally crossed into Sabah to stage kidnappings, including one that involved island resort vacationers in 2000. Malaysia has repeatedly intensified its patrols, but the long and porous sea border with the Philippines remains difficult to guard.
Some in Muslim-majority Malaysia advocated patience in handling the Lahad Datu intruders who arrived Feb. 9. But the deaths of the Malaysian police officers, including six who were ambushed while inspecting a waterfront village in a separate Sabah district on Saturday, have triggered widespread alarm over the possibility of more such intrusions.
The Filipinos who landed in Lahad Datu, a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, have rebuffed calls for them to leave, claiming Sabah belonged to their royal sultanate for over a century and adding that Malaysia has been paying a paltry amount to lease the vast territory with many palm plantations for decades. The group is led by a brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu. The identities of other suspected Filipino intruders whose presence became known in two more Sabah districts over the weekend were unclear.
The Malaysian government has not commented on the claim that it has been paying rent to the Philippine sultanate for Sabah.
For the second time in two days, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III went on national TV to urge the Filipino group in Lahad Datu to lay down their arms, warning that the situation could worsen and endanger about 800,000 Filipinos settlers there.
The crisis could have wide-ranging political ramifications in both countries. Some fear it might undermine peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
It also could jeopardize public confidence in Malaysia's long-ruling National Front coalition, which is gearing up for general elections that must be held by the end of June. The coalition requires strong support from voters in Sabah to fend off an opposition alliance that hopes to end more than five decades of federal rule by the National Front.
The U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur issued an advisory Monday urging American citizens to avoid traveling to much of Sabah's east coast, which includes towns that are embarkation points for nearby diving resort islands.
It noted in the advisory that "there is the potential for more violent incidents."