The United States assured the Philippines on Friday of its ongoing support for Manila’s war on terror, days after a bomb attack claimed by the Islamic State left three people dead in the restive south.
President Donald Trump, through the military’s special operations forces, has been unequivocal about his government’s support of Philippine security forces on the ground, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Molly Koscina told BenarNews.
“At the request of the government of the Philippines, U.S. special operations forces continue to assist the Armed Forces of the Philippines [AFP] in Mindanao through support that helps AFP commanders in their fight against militants,” Koscina said.
Without divulging specific details, she said U.S. support was meant to increase intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of their Filipino counterparts.
Last year, Washington also provided crucial intelligence support to Filipino forces that defeated pro-Islamic State (IS) militants who launched the siege in the southern city of Marawi.
Philippine defense officials declared the battle over in October after five months of vicious fighting that left 1,200 dead, most of them militants.
On Tuesday, an improvised explosive device went off in the town of Isulan, leaving three dead and dozens wounded. Last month, a suicide bombing also claimed by the IS killed 11 people on southern Basilan island.
Both claims have not been verified by the military and police. Officials said they were looking at possible involvement of local armed groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
Both militant forces based in the southern Mindanao region have rejected efforts by the government to strike a peace deal with the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
An Abu Sayyaf commander, Isnilon Hapilon, was the acknowledged IS head in the country, and he led the Marawi siege, attracting fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He was killed by security forces in October last year, effectively ending the Marawi fighting.
The BIFF, on the other hand, has pledged allegiance to the IS, but did not send fighters to Marawi.
The SITE Intelligence, a U.S.-based group that monitors online communications among Muslim militant groups, earlier reported that the Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the bombing of “Filipino soldiers in the capital of Sultan Kudarat.”
Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the Army’s 6th Division, said on Friday that it had deployed additional forces in Isulan, the provincial capital of Sultan Kudarat, and nearby areas to head off another attack.
“We are on heightened alert for us to thwart all hostile plans of lawless elements. Our visibility, checkpoint operations, security operations and focused military operations are against BIFF,” Sobejana said.
“Actually the threat is always there. They are targeting urban centers, crowded places because this is their thrust now to gain or get support from the international terrorist organization," he said.
Mark Navales from Cotabato and Richel V. Umel from Iligan contributed to this report.