Philippine and Pentagon officials confirmed Wednesday that U.S. troops were helping Filipino counterparts fight Islamic State-linked militants who have occupied parts of the southern city of Marawi, where more than 250 people have been killed over 22 days of battles.
The presence of armed U.S. troops in Marawi was covered by a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which calls for both parties to aid each other in times of enemy aggression, Philippine military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla told reporters in Manila.
“That capacity has been moved to help ground forces in Marawi,” Padilla said, adding that the arrangement “should not complicate our military engagement.”
Padilla declined to say how many U.S. troops were on the ground in Marawi, but conceded they were only a few who were mainly engaged in “technical assistance on information gathering on the battlefield.”
“They are also not engaged in battles, but in case their defenses are breached, they are allowed to protect themselves,” Padilla said.
Philippine military officials had previously said that U.S. special forces were providing military assistance in the Marawi battle, but they stressed there were no American “boots on the ground” in the besieged city.
In Washington, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, a spokesman at The Pentagon, confirmed Padilla’s comments.
“U.S. special operations forces are assisting the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) with ongoing operations in Marawi that helps AFP commanders on the ground in their fight against Maute and ASG militants,” Ross told BenarNews in an interview conducted by phone and via email.
“The U.S. government continues to work with the AFP to increase intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities through security assistance and training.”
Citing security reasons, Ross declined to discuss specific technical details of U.S. support, but added that the number of U.S. special forces in the southern Philippines usually range “between 50 and 100 based on rotational exercises.”
“U.S. Special Forces have been providing support and assistance in the southern Philippines for many years, at the request of several different Filipino administrations,” he said.
Apart from the special-operations forces, the United States military also maintains force levels of about 300 to 500 to support regular bilateral training, exercises and other activities in the Philippines, Ross said.
“The number of U.S. forces in the Philippines fluctuates as missions require and in consultation with the government of the Philippines,” Ross said. “Because the U.S. military does not maintain a permanent presence in the Philippines, you will see a periodic rotation of troops based on operational requirements.”
Battles now in fourth week
For more than three weeks, Philippine security forces have been locked in gunbattles with hundreds of IS-linked militants in Marawi, headed by Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged head of Islamic State in Southeast Asia.
Hapilon was aided by the local Maute group and fighters from several countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
The fighting that erupted on May 23 has cleared Marawi of most of its 200,000 residents, and transformed the once lively Islamic trading hub into a ghost town. Many buildings have been destroyed by ongoing military bombing runs.
More than 250 people have been killed, including at least 170 militants and 58 soldiers, according the latest military count.
Padilla, the Philippine military spokesman, said the bilateral military cooperation agreement was signed by the military chiefs of the Philippines and the U.S. Pacific Command, based in Hawaii.
That cooperation has been going since the last decade, when American forces were dispatched in the southern city of Zamboanga to help train Filipino forces against Abu Sayyaf militants, formerly the extremist group al-Qaeda’s arm in the region that has of late been identified with the Islamic State.
President Rodrigo Duterte had earlier denied requesting American help. He had earlier lambasted the U.S. government and threatened to end joint military exercises here as he attempts to wean the country from its biggest traditional ally in favor of boosting relations with China and Russia.
The Philippine military said the militants control only about 20 percent of the city, where the gunmen are believed to be holding a few hundred civilian hostages, including a local Catholic priest who had earlier made a videotaped appeal for the government to end its offensive.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said earlier that the American soldiers were mostly support staff receiving information from a P3 Orion surveillance plane flying over Marawi.
‘I hope they can get out’
On Wednesday, the Philippine military again launched air raids in areas controlled by the militants, with two FA-50 jets seen dropping at least six 500-pound bombs.
Meanwhile, Camalia Baunto, a resident of West Marinaut, a village in Marawi, told reporters that her husband, Nixon, trapped since day one of the gunbattles, had decided to escape but was forced to stay behind along with eight other civilians when the air strikes happened.
Baunto said her husband tried to run from the battle zone again on Sunday, but intense sniper fire from the militants had hit two women companions trying to flee with him.
“It was only today I was able to speak with him (using a cellphone). There were children in our house, wounded women. I hope they can get out,” she said.
Aida Ayunan, 37, a mother to five children staying at the Saguiran evacuation center, said gunfire had destroyed their house and a nearby mosque in Banggolo district.
“We will rebuild what we lost but we want the president to stop the bombing,” she said.
Padilla said troops on the ground were continuing to clear Marawi of rebels, but the open urban terrain has proved difficult for soldiers mostly trained in jungle-warfare scenario.
“In an urban terrain where civilians are still currently trapped and may possibly be used as human shields or may be hit by crossfire, troops have to be very careful,” Padilla said.
He said the troops have to be “very judicious” in advancing to avoid hitting civilians.
“And this is where the slow process of liberating Marawi is currently happening,” he said, adding that of the city’s 96 villages, only four still remained under the control of militants.
Roni Toldanes in Washington contributed to this report.