WASHINGTON, D.C.: The United States is weighing additional support to the Philippine military as it fights an Islamist insurgency in the south, a US defense official said Tuesday.
Discussions are “pretty advanced” and would see the US provide increased surveillance drone capabilities and training for local forces, the official told AFP on condition on anonymity.
The drones could hypothetically be used to conduct strikes, the official added, although that would only be for self-defense reasons to protect US or partner forces, and would not signal another front in America’s drone wars.
“It’s not necessarily what those (drones) are there for. Those are there for ISR and support,” the official said, using an abbreviation for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
The Philippines’ Department of National Defense said there had been no discussions regarding the use of US drones to strike IS-inspired “terrorist groups.”
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Logan said all military assistance in the Philippines is conducted at the request of the government.
“We respect the sovereignty of the Philippines, and we are not pursuing unilateral action in the Philippines,” he said.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has asked lawmakers to approve the recruiting of 20,000 more soldiers to tackle increased security threats following a bloody urban siege in the south.
Almost 700 people have been killed, according to the official count, in over two months of fighting in the southern city of Marawi against Islamist militants who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
The militants, waving the black IS flag, have occupied parts of Marawi since May 23, prompting Duterte to declare martial law in the entire southern region of Mindanao.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday called the crisis in Marawi a “tragic situation” and said US forces were providing surveillance aircraft and important advice for the Philippines forces in the battle there.
The US has for years provided intel to the Philippines and has between 300 and 500 special operations and regular forces stationed in the country.
‘Dasia’ vehicle recovered
On Wednesday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) announced that government troops were able to recover a “Dasia” armored vehicle from the Islamic State-linked Maute terrorists in Marawi City.
The blue Dasia vehicle was used by the Maute members in the first days of the battle that began on May 23.
A photo posted on social media in the early days of fighting showed Abdullah Maute, one of the leaders of the Maute group, riding the vehicle with an IS flag hoisted in front.
Capt. Jo-ann Petinglay, spokeswoman for the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command, said Wednesday the car was found in one of the structures used by Maute terrorists as storage area for firearms and other materials and as a temporary base for wounded members.
Government troops were also able to find a tunnel in the building where Maute men stocked food, ammunitions and weapons.
“The recent capture of one of the terrorist’s strongholds connotes that the troops are advancing towards the battle positions of Maute remnants, signifying that the terrorists are already contained in a narrower engagement area,” Petinglay said.
Military officers also rescued four civilians from the battle zone. They were found near Lake Lanao and were brought to army headquarters for medical assistance.
“Their escape and rescue was made possible due to the close coordination made by the wife of one of the civilians to our navy in Zamboanga and eventually coordination with the units under [the military’s]Joint Task Force Marawi,” she said.
As of the latest count, 45 civilians have been killed in Marawi City while a total 1,728 civilians have been rescued.
Fighting has claimed the lives of 122 government troops and at least 539 terrorists, from whom 607 firearms were recovered.
The military estimates that 50 to 70 terrorists are still holed up in the city, in an area measuring one square kilometer.