The leader of a band of Filipino militants whose incursion in Malaysia has left scores dead has reportedly fled even as his own family insist he is still in the country.
More than 200 followers of a self-proclaimed Filipino sultan entered Sabah on Borneo island a month ago to resurrect long-dormant land claims by Jamalul Kiram III.
Malaysian forces launched a military assault on March 5 against the group, sending them fleeing from a farming village where they had been holed up.
Armed Forces chief Zulkifeli Zin said intelligence reports showed that Agbimuddin Kiram, whose family says is the crown prince of the Sulu sultanate, had managed to evade security forces and slip out of Malaysia.
"(He) has abandoned his men and fled to his homeland," Zulkifeli was quoted by local media as saying late Friday.
But his family has denied the man, the younger brother of the self-styled sultan, had left Malaysia.
When asked about the armed forces chief's comments, the clan's Manila spokesman Abraham Idjirani told AFP: "That's not true."
The New Straits Times reported that Kiram is believed to have slipped out of the farming area, surrounded by Malaysian security forces, by blending in with the local population before the military attack earlier this month.
According to the latest police figures, 61 suspected militants have been killed in Malaysia's biggest security crisis in years. Eight police officers and a soldier have also died.
Authorities have arrested more than 100 people on suspicion of having links to the militants.
The Philippines navy said on Wednesday it had detained 35 suspected Filipino militants as they tried to sail home. The group reportedly did not include Kiram.
A total of 800,000 Filipinos live in Sabah, making up about a quarter of the population of the state, which is just a short boat ride from the southern Philippines.
The crisis has embarrassed the Philippines and Malaysia, shining the spotlight on the latter's porous shoreline and locals' complaints of rampant illegal immigration and lawlessness.