A senior Malaysian cop told how he posed as a low-ranking policeman to infiltrate a Sabah village occupied by dozens of Sulu militants from the Philippines, the High Court heard on Monday.
Mr Rashid Harun, 57, then leading Bukit Aman's special forces unit and its famed VAT69 commandos, pretended to be a sergeant-major carrying food supplies into the remote village to go unnoticed as he gathered ground intelligence.
Meanwhile, his junior colleague opened negotiations with gunmen out to reclaim the state for the now-defunct Sulu Sultanate.
"It was to assess the terrain, the enemy's strength, the weapons used and whatever information that could assist with the operation (to extricate the intruders)," he testified under questioning by Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail yesterday.
Mr Rashid was the first witness at the start of the high-profile trial, where 29 men and one woman are charged with waging war against the Malaysian king, harbouring terrorists and recruiting members to a terrorist group. It was held at the Kepayan prison near here due to security concerns because of the high number of those on trial at once.
It is Malaysia's first trial under the new Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, which replaced the controversial Internal Security Act. The penalty for waging war against the king is death or life imprisonment, while the other charges carry a sentence of life imprisonment.
In February last year, hundreds of gunmen from the southern Philippines landed on Sabah shores in speedboats and took over sleepy Tanduo village about 100km from Lahad Datu on the state's east coast. For months, they holed up there in their bid to take over the state, which was part of the Philippines in antiquity.
The four-month stand-off from Feb 11 to June 29 last year was one of Malaysia's most serious security threats since a 2000 stand-off with a religious cult that stole arms from a military depot in Perak ended with two members of the Malaysian security forces killed.
A Malaysian military operation to flush them out killed more than 100 people, including 11 Malaysian soldiers and policemen.
The end of the operation in late March saw the Malaysian government forming a security zone spanning Sabah's long shoreline, long used by paperless migrants to slip into the state.
It was called the Eastern Sabah Security Command and aimed to to better protect its borders.
In one of the earliest encounters with the militants on Feb 15, Mr Rashid said he accompanied Datuk Zulkefli Abd Aziz, a senior officer of the police's Special Branch, its intelligence gathering wing, and two other junior officers into the remote village.
To put the militants at ease, he offered them cigarettes and chatted in simple English and Malay while keeping his eyes peeled for crucial information.
He testified that he saw 79 men and women wearing army fatigues. Some, he said, carried M-16 rifles and Colt .45 pistols. All had machetes slung across their torsos or hung at the waist.
Meanwhile, Mr Zulkefli was negotiating with the militants' leader Datu Agimuddin Kiram, the brother of the self-styled Sulu sultan. Mr Rashid said he could not hear much of the conversation.
"I only heard Agimuddin stating they will not leave the place so long as his elder brother, Sultan Ismail Kiram, did not order them to retreat," Mr Rashid said.
Wishing to keep communications with the intruders open, Mr Rashid and Mr Zulkefli went back the next day to meet Agimuddin again. This time, Mr Rashid counted 63 more people and some grenade launchers.
Mr Rashid, who is now Security and Public Order director for the Eastern Sabah Security Command, is expected to be cross-examined by defence lawyer N. Sivananthan as the trial continues today.
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