By Alito L. Malinao
MANILA, March 7 (Xinhua) -- The dilemma faced by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III over the Sabah issue has worsened after the discovery of 13 bodies of the followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III who have occupied Lahad Datu, a coastal town in the Malaysian state of Sabah, since Feb. 9.
On Wednesday, Malaysian Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced in Kuala Lumpur that they have recovered the bodies of 13 men of Agbimuddin Kiram, the sultan's brother, who led the group of around 200, some of them armed, in occupying the village of Tanduao in Lahad Datu.
After Tuesday's massive air and ground assault by Malaysian forces at the village of Tanduao where the so-called "Royal Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu" have encamped, a total of 40 have already been killed, eight of them Malaysian policemen and the rest Kiram's followers.
The first encounter happened on March 1 where 12 of Kiram's followers were killed.
At noontime Thursday, the family of Sultan Kiram announced a " unilateral ceasefire"and challenged the Malaysian government to do the same.
The declaration of the ceasefire came hours after United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged an end to the violent standoff in Sabah.
The reaction of Kuala Lumpur to the ceasefire announcement was not immediately known.
But earlier, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has vowed " to take whatever action necessary" to resolve the standoff.
Malaysia has branded Kiram's followers as"terrorists,"a tag that was also attributed to Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario which the latter denied as having said. Del Rosario, who talked with Malaysian officials earlier, said later that he was quoted out of context.
Despite the coordinated assault on Tuesday, the problem in Sabah continues as the remnants of Agbimuddin's followers were reported to have fled to the jungles.
What has compounded the problem is that armed guerrillas of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the original Muslim rebel group in Mindanao, have reportedly slipped into Sabah to give succor to Kiram's fleeing followers.
Muhajab Mashim, an MNLF spokesman, was quoted as saying that" many" of their troops have slipped through the security cordon in the area and are now in Sabah.
MNLF guerrillas, who waged a bloody rebellion in Mindanao in the l970s, were trained in Sabah under the supervision of Malaysia. It was also believed that the Malaysian government bankrolled the Muslim rebellion then led by Nur Misuari, the MNLF founder.
The MNLF signed a peace agreement with the government of former President Fidel Ramos in l996. However, instead of ushering in peace in Mindanao, some former MNLF commanders, unhappy with the peace deal, bolted and formed what is now the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
On Tuesday, Misuari lambasted President Aquino for his alleged mishandling of the Sabah conflict and warned any attempt to arrest Sultan Kiram would plunge the country into "total chaos."
Earlier, Aquino has alluded to Misuari as among the members of a conspiracy behind the Kirams in their bid to regain ownership of Sabah, along with some officials of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Aquino said he had no evidence yet of this conspiracy but news reports have tagged Misuari as among the conspirators, along with former National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales and several others. "What he (Aquino) has done is very bad. It is unbecoming of a head of state, to be siding with the enemy of his own people," Misuari told reporters at the house of Sultan Kiram in Taguig City, a Manila suburb.
For his part, former President Ramos, the architect of the peace accord with the MNLF, advised Aquino to sit down and talk with Sultan Kiram in order to settle the crisis over Sabah.
Ramos said that in meeting with Kiram, Aquino should secure a pledge from Kiram that he be allowed to represent the Sultanate of Sulu in talks with Malaysia regarding the Sabah claim.
Afterward, Ramos said President Aquino should meet with Malaysian leaders and present what was agreed upon with Sultan Kiram.
Aquino had brushed aside suggestions to open a dialogue with Kiram, insisting that Kiram's followers should first return to Sulu before they can talk.
During a political rally on Wednesday in General Santos City in Mindanao, Aquino reiterated his call for the Kiram's followers to stand down and leave Lahad Datu and then"we can talk about your problem through a peaceful and orderly process."
Some critics of the government have said that Aquino's alleged "mishandling" of the Sabah problem could have negative repercussions in his government.