Sunday March 10, 2013
Lahad Datu: Journalists ‘bombarded’ by the sounds of war 15km away
By PHILIP GOLINGAI
Boom ... Boom ... Boom ... Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom ... BOOM!
That's the closest ever the media, covering the joint police and military operations to “flush out” the Sulu gunmen, get to the “war zone” in Felda Sahabat.
At the media centre in Felda Residence Sabahat resort, which is about 15km from Kg Tanduo and Kg Tanjung Batu where the armed intruders are holed up, journalists can hear the 105mm Pack Howitzers thundering.
The most dramatic sound is the screeching of F18 jet fighters above the media centre. The window panes in the building would rattle when the jet fighters fly low.
The targets are the 200-plus armed intruders who landed in Kg Tanduo in Felda Sahabat last month to claim Sabah led by Raja Muda Azzimudie Kiram, the brother of self-proclaimed Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.
They are believed to have come in several boats from Tawi-Tawi, about 45 minutes from the village.
Felda Sahabat is a 284,000ha oil palm plantation with about 15,000 people, largely foreigners, working in an area four times the size of Singapore.
The Malaysian forces are pursuing the armed intruders in two coastal villages, about 5km apart, facing the Celebes sea.
The area of operations in Kg Tanduo, where they were originally holed up, is about 4sq km and Kg Tanjung Batu, where some had fled, is 3sq km.
The uneven terrain is swampy, sandy and surrounded by secondary jungle and oil palm estates.
Unless you hire an aircraft and parachute into these two villages, it is impossible to enter the battle zone. Using a boat to reach Kg Tanduo, as some media organisations have attempted, is impossible.
You can try to drive to the two coastal villages but at the junction 15km to the villages, you will be stopped by two policemen armed with assault rifles.
Don't assume these policemen are on their own. I've seen several snipers, lying on the ground or standing next to an oil palm tree, who are trained to blow your head off if you breach the no-entry zone.
The press get an idea of what is happening in the “war zone” from the twice daily briefings by Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Ismail Omar and Armed Forces chief Jen Tan Sri Zulkifeli Mohd Zin. And occasionally from Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein and Defence Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
Since Thursday's announcement that 32 armed intruders were shot dead in gunfights in Kg Tanduo and Kg Tanjung Batu, stories from the war zone have dried up. Some in the press believe that “since the joint forces have pinned down the armed men in a 4sq km area in Kg Tanduo, that the end is near.
Yesterday morning's press conference was delayed for an hour to noon and this led to speculation that the two top guns had an important announcement. They were disappointed to find out that only one Sulu gunman was killed in a skirmish.
The two top guns have emphasised in their press conferences that the joint forces are extra careful in their sweeping and searching operations as they do not want to make a mistake that would cost the lives of their men.
My favourite question to the IGP and Jeneral is: “What is the fate of the Raja Muda?”
The standard answer is: “We still can't confirm as there are bodies which we cannot recover as the area is unsafe.”
The media also gets an idea of what's happening on the ground through photographs handed out by the Defence Ministry. The strangest to come out from the battle zone are those which showed rag tag weapons owned by the Sulu gunmen.
There are more questions than answers in Kg Tanduo and Kg Tanjung Batu as journalists are operating in the fog of war.