NEARLY 700 soldiers and policemen are combing Pulau Tekong for three armed robbers who fled there from Johor yesterday morning.
The search is now focused on the northern part of the island with guardsmen, reconnaissance troops, the Special Operations Command and Gurkhas among the crack units deployed, along with 12 search dogs.
The men have been ordered not to shoot unless shot at.
The hunt was set to continue through the night for the three robbers, said to be Indonesians and believed to be armed with a shotgun and two pistols.
They and one other man robbed a vegetable stall owner of RM$600 (S$270) at a wet market in Sedili town, then sped off by car to Pengerang, on the Johor River, and robbed a tour boat operator of RM$8,000 in cash and jewellery.
They also stole his motorised sampan, eluded Malaysian patrol boats and made a dash for Tekong, which is directly opposite Pengerang on Johor's south-eastern tip. The fourth robber fled in a car.
Tekong, 90 per cent of which is jungle, is used exclusively for SAF training, but for now, all field training has been cancelled and the soldiers have been ordered to stay in barracks. Other training is going on as usual.
The 5,000 or so recruits and other trainees and their instructors on the island are all safe and accounted for, said the Defence Ministry. Additional guards have been put in place to secure the island's ammunition base.
Even with some 5,000 soldiers in barracks, the SAF Ferry Terminal bristled with army and police personnel in full combat gear, including bullet-proof vests.
With the search dogs, they began scouring the jungle and swamps for the robbers at around 11am, as two RSAF helicopters circled overhead.
They found the robbers' motorised sampan abandoned off Tekong's south-eastern shoreline, a reclaimed area thick with palm trees, said Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Tan, head of general staff at SAF infantry headquarters.
A 30m-wide stream separates this area from the rest of Tekong, and soldiers patrolled its 1km length. Nearby, other soldiers moved to guard two bridges and a road that link these areas, hoping to cut off the escape.
But the robbers may have got through, as the police searched the reclaimed area until 6pm and came up empty.
On the SAF jetty, a sergeant whose unit was close to completing its stand-by duty yesterday, said: 'No one expected a real operation when we were activated for duty.
'It seems so unreal, having to load real ammunition and knowing that we are facing armed men out there.'
Safe in barracks, the recruits took things more lightly. One sent this SMS message to his girlfriend: 'Yeah! 16km road march cancelled...armed robbers running around Tekong.'
Last night, in the Basic Military Training Centre, the CO's Night, a battalion party, went on as planned.
Outside, in mud churned up by the afternoon downpour, searchers slogged through the night, using night-vision devices to hunt down the fugitives
Armed with assault rifles, SAF personnel in bullet-proof vests about to leave for Tekong yesterday afternoon
In a stolen sampan, the three robbers made a dash for the island, then abandoned the boat.