KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian troops launched an attack on an armed Filipino group on Tuesday, trying to end a standoff on Borneo island after violence in recent days that killed at least 27 people, a Malaysian government official said.
The operation to take over an area occupied by about 180 Filipinos, dozens of them armed, began at 7 a.m. (06.00 p.m. EST Monday), a spokesman for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said. The government sent seven army battalions to the area in eastern Sabah state on Monday to reinforce police.
Two policemen were killed along with 12 militants when Malaysian security forces tried to tighten a cordon around the armed group on Friday. That sparked more violence over the weekend with six policemen and seven more gunmen killed in another area, raising concerns the violence was spreading.
"After the first attack, I have asserted that the intruders must surrender and if they refuse the authorities of this country will take action," Najib said in a statement.
"The government has to take the right action in order to preserve the pride and sovereignty of this country."
The group, which arrived by boat about three weeks ago, say they are descendants of the sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, which ruled parts of northern Borneo for centuries. They are demanding recognition and an increased payment from Malaysia for their claim as the rightful owners of Sabah.
Malaysia has refused their demands and along with the Philippine government had urged the group to return home.
The violence has sparked a political crisis ahead of elections for both the Philippine and Malaysian governments and raised concerns of instability in resource-rich Sabah state.
(Reporting by Niluksi Koswanage; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Dean Yates)
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