OUR newsroom was abuzz when someone gave us a tip-off that weapons had been stolen from an army camp in Perak.
It was July 2, 2000. I was a crime reporter, fresh out of school, and had just come back from Sabah several weeks earlier after covering the Sipadan hostage crisis in which Abu Sayyaf abducted 21 people from an island resort.
When the latest tip-off came, then crime desk chief Datuk Lourdes Charles and I drove straight to Sauk, Perak, where the militants were holding up.
Throughout the three-hour journey, we called our contacts to get the latest update.
Those were days when there was no social media. We were fully relying on phone calls and SMSes.
Initially, everyone thought the heist was the doing of a foreign militant group.
As it turned out, more than a dozen men in three Pajero, all in army uniforms including some impersonating as officers, had gone into two remote army camps in Hulu Perak past midnight on July 2, 2000 on the pretext of carrying out a surprise audit at the armoury.
They escaped with more than 100 weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition including heavy weapons.
The group calling themselves Al-Maunah then drove about 20km and set up a makeshift jungle base on a hill in Bukit Jenalik, Sauk.
Led by Mohd Amin Mohd Razali, they claimed to have superpowers which could make them “invisible and invincible”.
Mohd Amin convinced his followers that he possessed ilmu kebal (art of invincibility) that allowed him to move at lightning speed without being seen by his enemies.
When we arrived in Sauk, known for its excellent durians, this sleepy town with just a few wooden shophouses was buzzing with the presence of military and police personnel.
We had to pass a roadblock where all vehicles were thoroughly checked.
There were also Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) parked by the roadside.
Security personnel were moving around fully armed with M16 assault rifles. Some held grenade launchers.
A military helicopter was hovering about at low altitude.
As we walked to a nearby shop, we suddenly heard sporadic gunfire.
Instantly, we took cover behind a car.
Several police personnel ran towards us and told us to move away from the area as they started widening the parameter.
They wanted to box in the militants to prevent them from escaping.
The army and police were using a nearby school as a staging area to carry out their operations.
We started getting information that the militants had taken at least four hostages – two policemen, a durian picker and a soldier.
Kpl R. Sagadevan, 48, and commando Matew Medan, 25, were later tortured and killed.
During the five-day drama, which ended on July 6, our crime team including the late Kuldeep S. Jessey commuted daily between Sauk and our hotel in Ipoh.
It was an hour-long journey on a long and winding road, which was poorly lit at night.
However, it was a scenic drive with durians hanging overhead or just a few metres from the road.
Almost daily, we would spot one or two fallen durians on the road.
One day, we decided to pick them up and have a go at the taste.
It was really good! (We had drawn lots to decide who should pick up the durian and eventually Kuldeep, being the most junior, had to do it.)
The heist was not just big news in Malaysia but around the world based on the hordes of foreign journalists at the daily press updates.
It was an exciting time and we did not mind the long hours despite having to be at the location until late at night.
There were sporadic gunfire and sounds of explosions occasionally.
We found out later that the sporadic gunfire was done as the security forces wanted to wear down the militants and deprive them of sleep.
APCs were used to ferry not just army personnel but also the militants’ family members – their wives, children and siblings – into the jungle to communicate with their loved ones in an effort to get them to surrender.
These emotional pleas, all using special loud hailers fitted on the APCs, could be heard a distance away, especially in the silence of the night.
This tactic worked as some of the militants gave themselves up.
On the last day, we heard that the army was planning a full-scale assault of the hilltop.
But soon after that, news broke out that an army general managed to take down the militant leader. All of them surrendered.
A bloodbath had been avoided. The militants would have been no match for the police and military commandos who had encircled their camp.
A total of 27 militants were then transported amid heavy security out of the area.
We were told to head to the Sauk police station for a joint police and military press conference.
Outside the police station, an array of seized weapons ranging from machine guns to small arms and ammunition were put on display.
Soon after the press conference, we got the address for Kpl Sagadevan’s home in Kuala Kangsar.
We headed there but his family members were too distraught to speak to reporters.
They were hugging each other. His wife was inconsolable.
A month later, 29 Al-Maunah members were charged with treason.
Mohd Amin along with two other followers were found guilty after a year-long trial.
They were hanged six years later in 2006.
Other members of the group received jail time, including some serving life imprisonment.
This daring heist led to new SOP and improvements on security and how weapons were stored and handled at military installations nationwide.
It is also a reminder about the sacrifices of the men and women from our security agencies who keep us all safe.
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