United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday (Thursday, Manila time) sought an end to violence and encouraged dialogue among all parties to peacefully resolve the situation in Sabah, Malaysia.
"The Secretary-General is closely following the situation in Sabah," said a statement issued by his spokesman. "He urges an end to the violence and encourages dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation."
Responding to Ban's call, the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, headed by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, declared a "unilateral ceasefire" in Sabah. It took effect at 12:30 p.m. yesterday.
Kiram III announced this at 12:26 p.m. yesterday, the 23rd day of the standoff that escalated into an all-out Malaysian offensive.
Ban expressed concern about the impact the Sabah clashes may have on the civilian population, including migrants in the region.
"He urges all parties to facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance and act in full respect of international human rights norms and standards," said the statement.
According to reports, Malaysian troops are searching houses and terrains for armed members of a Filipino clan, all followers of the Sultanate of Sulu, embroiled in a three-week conflict in Sabah.
Related violence has reportedly left eight members of the Malaysian security forces and 19 clan members dead.
With tears in his eyes, an obviously happy sultan led a press conference with some of his siblings standing behind, announcing the ceasefire.
It's tears for joy, he admitted to journalist present after learning that Ban has urged "an end to the violence."
Ban's statement dated March 6, 2013, may be read on the UN website.
Kiram III thanked the journalists who have been at his home about two weeks now. "I love you all," he said.
Abraham J. Idjirani, spokesman of the sultan and the sultanate, said the ceasefire from the sultanate was in response to the UN. He added that it was also due the "reported massacre committed by Malaysian authorities against 40 innocent civilians in Lahad Datu yesterday (Wednesday)."
With the truce in place, the sultan asked Malaysia to reciprocate.
"The ball is now with (the) Malaysian government. Let the UN judge their actions," said Idjirani.
He said the sultanate is thankful to the UN.
Idjirani said Kiram III told his brother, Rajah Muda Agbimuddin, "to initiate evasive and defensive posture," noting that this has been their stance since the start of the standoff.
With the ongoing standoff, more than 1,500 people have fled their homes in Sabah, a police source said Thursday, as security forces widened the hunt for more than 200 armed followers of Kiram III.
Villagers were in evacuation centers in Lahad Datu as police and army combed areas around the nearby village of Tanduo, after an air and ground assault on the militants' camp Tuesday, the source said.
"We are taking care of them. The government is trying to address their basic needs," he told dpa by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As this developed, Malacañang said that the prospect of an exodus of 800,000 Filipinos from Sabah back to the Philippines will likely be a huge headache for the Aquino government in terms of job generation.
While crossing his fingers such scenario will not happen, President Benigno S. Aquino III has acknowledged that the return of Filipinos who may be displaced by the conflict in Sabah would aggravate the country's unemployment figures.
The President, speaking at a Team PNOY campaign rally on Wednesday night here, said the government cannot immediately generate employment if these hundreds of thousands of jobless Filipinos are sent back to the country.
The plight of the Filipinos living in Sabah was highlighted by the President in criticizing the armed supporters of the Sulu sultan Jamalul Kiram III who occupied the territory for placing the lives of their countrymen at risk. Defying appeals to surrender, the group claiming to be heirs of the sultanate is still engaged in a firefight with Malaysian forces in a desperate attempt to assert their claim over the ancestral land.
Senator Loren Legarda said the government needs to do everything it can to prevent further bloodshed in the ongoing conflict.
Legarda, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, noting that Sultan Kiram III has asked to speak directly with the President, said that "if by acceding to this request, a window of opportunity will be opened to end the bloodshed and the standoff, then, the President should seriously consider this request. We should not be speculating what Malaysia's reactions will be on matters that will be discussed during the meeting."
"The situation demands that we exhaust all possible means, including an opportunity for the President to meet with Sultan Kiram. If our government is not willing to listen to them without pre-conditions, I wonder who will," she added.
Meanwhile, with Tawi-Tawi facing a looming food crisis as a result of the Sabah standoff, Cagayan Rep. Jack Enrile expressed fears for the lives of local folk.
"I fear not only for further loss of lives in Sabah but also for the lives of people in Tawi-Tawi, Enrile said.
Sabah and Tawi-Tawi have been trading partners for centuries because of their proximity to each other. But now the border between them has been closed, preventing the exchange of goods. Prices of basic commodities surged to almost one hundred percent in Tawi-Tawi and people now fear the worst.
"I hope the conflict will not escalate to a food crisis because we are not yet prepared. We cannot source out food from other provinces because they still fall short when it comes to self-sufficiency. With the massive influx of people from Sabah who are either escaping from the hostilities or are being deported by Malaysian authorities, Tawi-Tawi will soon run out of its food supply," Enrile said. (With reports from Genalyn D. Kabiling and DPA)