LAHAD DATU: Since last year, the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCom) has been saddled with the task of not only maintaining security in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZone) but also preventing the transmission of COVID-19.
ESSCom is the main enforcement authority for ESSZone, a 1,457 kilometre-long special security area along the east coast of Sabah covering 58,420 square kilometres of sea area and 32,158 sq km of land area.
ESSZone shares its maritime borders with the Philippines and Indonesia. In fact, several areas in Indonesia’s northern Kalimantan such as Kampung Kandoangan and Simanggaris province share a common border with Sabah’s Kalabakan district situated within ESSZone.
The border factor has facilitated migrants from the neighbouring country to enter Sabah illegally, which has left the authorities here with an additional issue to contend with as these illegals are a potential source of COVID-19 transmissions.
ESSCom commander Datuk Ahmad Fuad Othman said illegal immigrants from neighbouring nations pose a huge challenge in the fight against COVID-19.
He said the presence of many illegal routes or laluan tikus, as well as the thick forests of ESSZone, is enabling illegals to enter Sabah and escape detection by the security forces.
“The immigrants are smart as they know we can only guard four or five of the routes, so they enter (Sabah) using other routes… they are not doing this just during the day but at night too,” he told Bernama, adding that due to the proximity of the maritime border, immigrants can be smuggled into the state within 20 to 40 minutes.
Ahmad Fuad said from the beginning of this year up to May 23, a total of 3,358 illegal immigrants from the Philippines and Indonesia were sent back to their country of origin after completing their jail term in Sabah.
He said when the pandemic started, ESSCom was instructed by the National Security Council to drive away boats carrying illegal immigrants the moment they are detected entering Malaysian waters to prevent transmission of COVID-19 to members of the security forces.
The move was necessary as various COVID-19 clusters had emerged involving illegal immigrants who were detained at temporary detention centres in the state.
Ahmad Fuad said between early this year and May 23, a total of 104 boats carrying 347 illegal immigrants were detected entering Malaysian waters but were forced to turn back.
Ahmad Fuad said to curb cross-border crime and COVID-19 transmissions, various operations, including Op Cegah Pati (OCP), have been carried out on sea and land in ESSZone, covering the districts of Tawau, Semporna, Kunak, Lahad Datu, Beluran, Kinabatangan and Sandakan.
He said OCP involving sea operations was implemented as soon as the first Movement Control Order was enforced on March 18, 2020, to prevent the entry of illegal immigrants as well as smuggling activities.
This year alone up to May 23, a total of 22,726 boats were inspected during the sea operations – 47 boats were seized while 141 individuals were arrested.
Land operations carried out in ESSZone during the same period saw 11 vehicles being seized and 69 individuals detained, out of the 141,145 vehicles and 97,553 individuals checked.
Ahmad Fuad also said that ESSCom, which carries out its activities in coordination and cooperation with the police, army and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, has good intelligence collaboration with the Philippine authorities which has enabled them to carry out successful operations against the Abu Sayyaf militants and kidnap for ransom (KFR) groups.
He said through the sharing of information, four militants in ESSCom’s wanted list of 21 militants were shot dead in Southern Philippines. The militants were allegedly involved in kidnapping and cross-border criminal activities in ESSZone.
ABU SAYYAF CELL
Meanwhile, in a special operation carried out last month at Taman Sri Arjuna in Beaufort, the police and ESSCom successfully paralysed an Abu Sayyaf cell set up by a group of Filipinos working closely with the Daesh militant group. During the operation, eight members of Abu Sayyaf were arrested while five were shot dead.
Ahmad Fuad said ESSCom has also thwarted kidnap attempts by KFR groups, based in Southern Philippines, in the waters of ESSZone.
“This year, ESSCom received information pertaining to two kidnap plans in ESSZone by KFR groups and last year, we received information in relation to five kidnap attempts, but they were all successfully thwarted,” he added.
Ahmad Fuad also pointed out that Sabah’s security forces need to be equipped with an effective surveillance system, including state-of-the-art radars and binoculars and remote cameras capable of detecting, tracking and identifying targets in the event of a suspected intrusion into ESSZone waters and land.
“Such radars should be installed in strategic locations to enable more efficient monitoring, thus plugging any existing blind spot. High-quality surveillance assets will also help to enhance the efficiency of the operations carried out by the security forces to tackle cross-border crime,” he said.
He said ESSZone’s maritime operations needed high-endurance patrol boats that can withstand rough waves and be used for 24-hour operations, while its land mobility assets required vehicles capable of navigating and patrolling hilly and densely forested areas.
“I’m confident our operations in ESSZone will become more effective with the addition of appropriate assets. I hope that the Home Ministry will prioritise the approval process for the procurement of new equipment by ESSCom and repair of our existing equipment,” he added.