American involvement made public as death toll in battle for Marawi reaches at least 217
Debris flies in the air as Philippine jets bomb suspected locations of militants in Marawi on Friday, June 9, 2017. Photo: Associated Press
U.S. Special Forces are supporting Philippine troops battling a militant group connected to Islamic State that has occupied the southern town of Marawi, where fierce fighting over 19 days has left at least 217 people dead.
The U.S. involvement, made public for the first time Saturday, shows Manila’s continued reliance on Washington’s military prowess, despite an onslaught of anti-American sentiment from Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte since he rose to power last year.
The battle in Marawi was triggered when authorities tried to arrest Islamic State’s designated leader of a self-styled caliphate in the predominantly Muslim southern Philippines, touching off some of the worst fighting in years. Philippine armed forces are trying dislodge fighters from the extremist Maute clan from their last defenses in the town and free up to 200 possible hostages.
The U.S. embassy in Manila said in a statement Saturday that U.S. Special Operations Forces are providing support to the Philippine military in Marawi, but wouldn’t discuss specifics. “As we have in the past, we routinely consult with our Filipino partners at senior levels to support the Duterte administration’s counterterrorism efforts,” the embassy said.
A Philippines military spokesman confirmed Saturday that the U.S. is providing technical support and intelligence.
The Associated Press reported that a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion plane was seen flying over Marawi on Friday, above Philippine helicopters firing rockets at militant positions. A Philippine military official told AP that the U.S. was providing “noncombat assistance.’’
While it is the first time authorities have confirmed U.S. involvement in this battle, U.S. troops have assisted the Philippine military in the south since the early 2000s.
However, the Philippines’ relations with the U.S.—a traditional ally and former colonial power—have been strained since Mr. Duterte took office and began distancing himself from Washington. He says he wants to pursue an independent foreign policy, and has embraced economic investment from China, playing down rival claims in the South China Sea.
Mr. Duterte last year threatened to cancel a longstanding U.S. military deployment in the Philippines, saying it had not helped resolve long-running conflicts. The threats haven’t been carried out, but the relationship with Washington remains tense.