Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian police said they had released 32 armed Filipinos arrested earlier this week on suspicion of trying to join an incursion by Islamic militants in an eastern state, media reports said on Friday.
Sabah state police chief Hamza Taib was quoted by Malaysian media saying the 32 men would be deported back to the Philippines after investigators concluded they had no link with the ongoing incursion.
More than 200 armed followers of a self-styled sultan landed in the state of Sabah on Borneo island in February, reviving a centuries-old land claim by the long-defunct Sulu sultanate, once based in the southern Philippines.
Fighting between the militants and security forces has killed at least 68 Filipinos and 10 Malaysian security personnel, authorities have said.
But Hamza said police determined that the 32 men, who were caught in a wooden motor boat off Sabah armed with guns and machetes, were part of a team of campaigners for a mayoral election in the southern Philippines whose boat had veered off course.
"Those who enter Sabah illegally bearing weapons will be detained and investigated... although we know that in the Philippines, people having guns and weapons is like us having a handphone," Hamza was quoted saying by the website of Malaysia`s The Star newspaper.
Authorities are still trying to flush out scattered militant remnants and their sympathisers to end Malaysia`s worst security crisis in recent years.
For centuries, people have moved back and forth across the porous sea border separating Sabah and the adjacent southern Philippines, known for its lawlessness and Islamic insurgencies.
The Sabah incursion has aroused heated sentiments on both sides, with Malaysians outraged by the territorial breach, while many in the Philippines have voiced support for the militants.