MANILA -- The Malaysian authorities will resettle residents of remote coastal areas near the southern Philippines amid fighting that has killed more than 70 people, officials said Monday.
The plan is in response to a mid-February incursion into the Malaysian state of Sabah by about 200 gunmen who claimed to be a royal militia seeking to re-establish an ancient claim on the land by the Philippine-based Sultanate of Sulu.
The decision to resettle was made "after realizing that the vulnerability of several settlements to the easy entry of illegal immigrants and stateless persons was the primary cause of the Sulu terrorist intrusion," said a report from Malaysia's state news agency, Bernama.
Fighting on Sunday left two adults and two children dead, and one child wounded, officials said. The violence in Sabah has killed 74 people, including 9 members of Malaysia's security forces.
Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia said Monday that people would be resettled away from the remote northeastern coast of Sabah, which is a short boat ride from the restive southern Philippines. He said other parts of Sabah might also need resettlement programs, according to Bernama.
"The need for safety is now more pressing in the east," he said.
The prime minister told reporters that the resettlement would include Malaysian citizens as well as others living in the coastal areas, and that it would be conducted in a way that does not infringe on the rights of those moved.
Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for Jamalul Kiram III, one of the claimants to the title of Sultan of Sulu, who ordered the incursion, said that more than 100 Filipino fighters remained in the area and had been instructed to conduct a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Malaysian authorities.
The most recent attack took place about 9:30 a.m. Sunday when two suspected members of the Filipino group, who were being pursued by soldiers, fled into a house and opened fire, Malaysia's chief of defense forces, Tan Sri Zulkifeli Mohd Zin, told reporters.
"The gun battle went on for several minutes," Bernama quoted him as saying. "The security forces saw one of the enemy dash into an adjacent house and torch it. They opened fire at the first house and then entered it and found the bodies and the injured boy."
The report said those killed did not have identity papers, but it referred to them as "foreigners." The injured boy and a Malaysian soldier wounded in the altercation were airlifted to a nearby hospital.
Malaysian forces began a major air and ground assault on March 1 against the 200 gunmen from the southern Philippines, and there have been sporadic firefights since.
Mr. Zulkifeli told reporters on Sunday that the remaining gunmen had split into small groups trying to ambush the Malaysian police and soldiers.
"We have learned from their modus operandi that the enemy would lure the security forces to an area where their snipers would open fire," he said. "After a gun battle, they would retreat into a house to hold off the security forces and burn down the dwelling when they could not hold on any longer."
Malaysian officials have repeatedly said that most of the gunmen have fled or have been eliminated, and that security forces were undertaking "mopping-up operations" in Sabah.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.