July 6, 2017 10:56 am JST

Neighbors back Philippines against Islamic State-linked fighters

Region fears Marawi siege may be prelude to greater terrorist threat

JUN ENDO and KAORI TAKAHASHI, Nikkei staff writers

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte checks a sniper rifle during a handover ceremony for equipment provided by China at Clark Air Base, near Angeles City, on June 28. © Reuters

MANILA/SYDNEY -- Countries in the Asia-Pacific are coming to the Philippines' aid in its fight against Islamic State-linked militants in the city of Marawi, in a bid to prevent Southeast Asia from becoming the terrorist group's next stronghold as it loses ground in the Middle East.

On Tuesday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that two AP-3C Orion Australian surveillance planes began flying over Marawi, located on the southern island of Mindanao, last Friday. They will keep an eye on the local Maute group, which has pledged loyalty to the Islamic State and is besieging the city. Philippine military pilots and technicians will be on the flights, collecting images and other information of strategic value.

Australia volunteered the planes. At the beginning of June, a gunman with suspected ties to terrorist groups took a civilian hostage and killed another in Melbourne. Terrorism by the Islamic State "is a direct threat to Australia and our interests," Defense Minister Marise Payne has said.

The U.S. has been flying surveillance planes as well. But with the Philippine air force running low on bombs after a series of air raids, it has also begun providing munitions to its ally. A Philippine cargo plane has picked up the supplies from an American air base in the state of Arizona.

Even China is extending its support. It gave 3,000 rifles and 6 million bullets, among other supplies, to the Philippines at the end of June. During the handover ceremony at the Philippines' (formerly American) Clark Air Base, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua touched on the possibility of joint military drills and intelligence-sharing in Marawi.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia also began conducting joint patrols off the coast of Mindanao last month.

The Maute group occupied government buildings in Marawi on May 23, resulting in a military clash and in President Rodrigo Duterte declaring martial law in Mindanao. While 343 militants have been killed so far, another 100 or so are still said to be fighting with guerrilla tactics. Government forces still face a long battle ahead.

Maute is receiving reinforcements from overseas groups that are also aligned with the Islamic State. Some of the fighters killed had come from Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, among other countries. The Abu Sayyaf, another terrorist organization in the southern Philippines loyal to the Middle Eastern group, apparently was also plotting to turn Marawi into Islamic State territory.

The global community is coming together against the militants in Marawi because the Islamic State is close to losing its two main strongholds -- Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Experts have warned that the group's members could escape the Middle East and regroup in Mindanao, which is home to a large Muslim population.

The Islamic State has already been connected a string of terrorist attacks in Europe, Asia and other regions. Its fall in the Middle East could trigger even more such incidents.

Duterte has pledged to continue fighting until the last terrorist is wiped out. 

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