By BORNEOTODAY REPORTERS
SANDAKAN: Two people, suspected of having terror links, have been arrested by a special police team from Kuala Lumpur, Thursday afternoon, but three more are said to have fled the scene, triggering a massive manhunt for them.
BorneoToday however cannot confirm if indeed three alleged militants had managed to get away.
The arrests, in full view of the public, were said to have taken place near the Masjid Jamek As-Sheikh Hasbollah at 4th Avenue, Pusat Bandar Sandakan (or Jalan Lebuh Empat) close to the busy Jalan Buli Sim Sim here.
Police were initially reluctant to comment on the incident which took place in broad daylight any time between noon and 3.45pm due to the azan (Muslim prayers) heard in the background of a video clip that went viral on social media.
It was only at night that the New Straits Times in a brief report quoted Bukit Aman’s Counter-Terrorism Division assistant director Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay as confirming the incident had taken place and that arrests were made.
It is understood that several other media had also contacted Ayob who declined who divulge any details except to say that police would issue an official statement on the matter.
Actual details of what transpired remain sketchy.
However, it is believed that the group of five militants were just on transit in Sandakan, as their destination is widely said to be in battle-frenzy Marawi, (Mindanao island) in southern Philippines.
Their presence in Sandakan somehow came to the attention of the police who moved in on them before they could move on.
The arrest of the duo was caught on video and has since gone viral on Facebook and WhatsApp.
The footage shows a team of policemen in balaclava (stocking face mask) and armed with machineguns, apprehending the suspects and securing the perimeter.
People started speculating on the incident with some thinking it was just a drill.
When contacted by the Star, Sandakan police chief, Assistant Commissioner Mohd Azhar Hamin declined to comment about the operation.
“All I can tell you is that we have arrested some people,” he was quoted as saying, adding that any information about the operation should be obtained from Bukit Aman.
Several media were called by anxious members of the public as photos and videos of the incident spread like wildfire, and no one in authority was willing to quell the speculation.
Sandakan federal lawmaker, Stephen Wong Tien Fatt said police should clear the air about what had transpired that afternoon.
“There are so many rumours after the photos and video clips of the arrests went viral over social media. The public has to be told what had happened to stop the panic,” Wong added.
At 6.00pm, Chan Tzun Hei the Elopura Community Development Officer (PPM) sent out a whatsapp note: –
“From a reliable source, I have verified that the incident today (Thursday) at Town near Masjid Jamek is a joint operation from Sandakan and Bukit Aman police forces in an anti-terrorism operation.
“Glad that police is proactive and able to take action before any bad incident happens. Thanks to PDRM. Sandakan is safe now.”
Chan later confirmed that it was indeed him who had sent out the notice, but he too could not provide details.
Earlier in the week, Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCom) Commander Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid had said that security forces in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone which includes Sandakan, were on the full alert for militants.
Intelligence sources had apparently notified security elements here of the possibility of IS militants fleeing Marawi where a civil war is going on between the Philippines military and the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to the IS.
It was also been given to understand that there could be fresh militants from other countries, including Indonesia, who would use Sabah as their entry point to the southern Philippines, via the numerous ‘back door’.
Interestingly, Thursday morning, chief minister Musa Aman attended am ESSZone meeting which he co-jointly heads with the deputy prime minister, Ahamd Zahid Hamidi, to talk on various security issues including the Marawi war.
Philippine media is speculating that the militants in Marawi are attempting the flee the city amidst heavy aerial bombing by the Philippines air force.