The Philippine and United States navies on Saturday held a coordinated patrol in southern Sulu Sea amid concerns that militants in the region would cross borders to join Islamic State inspired Filipino militants engaged in five weeks of gun battles in Marawi City.
Crews of the Filipino Del Pilar Class Frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz and the Littoral Combat Ship USS Colorado worked to “detect and deter threats to maritime security,” a statement from the U.S. Embassy said.
The joint patrol was carried out at the invitation of Manila, it said.
“These patrols enhance regional peace and stability,” said American commander Rear Adm. Don Gabrielson. “Our at-sea operations with the Philippine Navy demonstrate our commitment to the alliance and deter piracy and illegal activities.”
The day-long patrol boosted the maritime security cooperation between the two allies, and enhanced their reaction times to criminal activity at sea.
“It further demonstrates U.S. commitment to the security of the Philippines and enduring US interest in promoting stability and prosperity in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” it said.
The joint patrol came amid heightened concerns that regional militants from Indonesia and Malaysia would try to sneak into the southern Philippines to help their comrades engaged in clashes with Philippine troops in the southern city of Marawi.
The gunmen, fighters from the local Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups, and backed by Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern fighters are battling under the flag of the Islamic State.
They still control a portions of Marawi, which has been emptied by its 200,000 civilian population.
The government on Friday said the fighting has left 82 government troops, 303 militants and 44 civilians dead, with authorities and aid workers saying the death toll could rise with the army continuing to advance.
The Philippines has continued holding regular joint military exercises with the United States despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-U.S. rhetoric in favor of boosting ties with Russia and China.
But he was forced to ask for U.S. help amid the Marawi crisis. American spy planes have been assisting the Filipino forces as it carries out its offensive, and several troops have been providing technical assistance on the ground. They are barred from actual combat, but are armed and can protect themselves if they came under attack.