Monday March 11, 2013
Lahad Datu: ‘The armed gunman was watching us’
Reports by P.K. KATHARASON, MUGUNTAN VANAR, RUBEN SARIO, STEPHANIE LEE, PHILIP GOLINGAI, SHAHANAAZ HABIB, SHAUN HO, RAZAK AHMAD, AUSTIN CAMOENS, P. ARUNA, YUEN MEIKENG, CHRISTINA TAN, IVAN LOH, NIK NAIZI HUSIN and HAMDAN RAJA ABDULLAH
The Star photographer Normimie Diun and a group of journalists had a close encounter with a gunman as they were heading towards the frontline yesterday morning.
They were about 3km away from a place where elite police and military units were flushing out remnants of the Sulu armed group when she saw a gunman in the oil palm plantation.
This is her first person account:
“At around 9.30am, I decided to drive towards Kampung Tanjung Labian. We (journalists in two cars) headed to our usual spot, a junction to the red zone (where the armed forces are conducting their operations against Sulu gunmen hiding in two coastal villages).
The place, about 20km from the media centre (in Felda Residence Sahabat resort) and about 150km from Lahad Datu town, has the best likelihood for photo opportunities.
It is where you can photograph suspects being led away or see military and police vehicles coming in and going out.
Usually, there is a police roadblock manned by two or three policemen who will not allow civilians to enter the red zone, located about 15km away. There are also snipers hiding around the area.
But when we arrived there was no police roadblock. We decided to drive on after seeing a villager on a motorcycle coming out of the road.
We thought it was safe as it looked like the situation there had gone back to normal.
As we drove on, we still did not see any policemen, and so we became more confident that the situation in the no-entry zone was back to normal.
After driving for 2km, we arrived at a village with about 20 wooden and concrete houses.
But the village was deserted and doors of the houses were mostly wide open.
I told my colleagues to be careful as there was nobody in the village and it could be occupied by armed intruders.
Then I saw several Afghan shawls on the clothesline – the black-and-white ones – and I noticed that there were no children’s clothes.
I said to myself: ‘The armed intruders are here.’
We quickly left the place and drove in the direction of Tanjung Batu to find areas where our armed forces were present.
As we passed Kampung Labian, I saw a shadow of a man squatting among oil palm trees on the left side of the road, about 10m from our car. I said that I had seen a man.
Serieffa (Mushtafa Al Bakry, the Al-Hijrah television news journalist) who was driving the car said he too saw the man holding a gun.
I looked again at the man and noticed that he was holding a gun that looked like an M-16. He was dressed in black and looked like he was in his 50s.
I saw that he was staring at us. He looked like a typical villager but he was holding a gun.
My companions wanted to shoot the armed man (with their cameras). I shouted to them: ‘Don’t!’ I also told them to keep down and put away their cameras.
My immediate thought was that he could mistake our equipment as weapons and fire at us.
In the car we kept saying ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar’ (God is great, God is great) as Serieffa slammed the accelerator and sped off at 120kph.
As we reached the main Felda road, we came across about 30 frightened villagers of Tanjung Labian. They had heard four gunshots just minutes earlier.
One of them, Achar Jalil, said they were told by their village chief to remain in the area despite advice from Malaysian authorities to evacuate on Monday.
As we left Tanjung Labian, we saw police personnel in a truck heading into the area.
In my 17 years with The Star as a photographer, this is the first time I had come face-to-face with a gunman in a battle zone.”
(Four hours later, Normimie and the other journalists returned to the junction leading to Tanjung Labian, but this time their cars were stopped at a heavily guarded roadblock. Policemen told them not to drive any further.)
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