KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 14, 2013 — Malaysian security forces have surrounded about 100 armed men believed to be from a breakaway rebel faction in the southern Philippines, Malaysian police and a government official said today, but a Philippine official said they were unarmed Filipinos who had been promised land.

The standoff in Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state on Borneo island threatened to stir tension between the Southeast Asian neighbours whose ties have been periodically frayed by security and migration problems caused by a porous sea border.

“Our firepower is more than enough to arrest them but the government has chosen to negotiate with them so they leave peacefully to return to the south of the Philippines,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, on a visit to Sabah ahead of national elections, was quoted as saying by state-run Bernama news agency.

Malaysian police said in a statement the situation was under control, but did not say whether the men had agreed with a request to surrender.

A high-ranking Malaysian government source with direct knowledge of the situation told Reuters the gunmen were suspected to be from a faction unhappy with the Philippines’ recent peace deal with the main Muslim rebel group.

Raul Hernandez, a spokesman for the Philippine Foreign Ministry, said his government was trying to get information about the incident and was in touch with Malaysian officials.A senior Philippine military official said navy boats and an aircraft had been sent to the border area. He dismissed the Malaysian account of the group, saying they were unarmed Filipinos who had been promised land in Sabah.

He said a meeting over the land claim had attracted a large crowd and drawn the attention of Malaysian authorities.

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