US gives surveillance planes to Philippines

MANILA: The United States donated surveillance aircraft and began delivering weapons to the Philippines on Thursday to help its Asian ally fight Islamist militants.

The two Cessna C208B planes, which together with their equipment are worth more than US$30 million (RM128.4 million), will track Islamic State group-styled gunmen as well as patrol maritime borders, US ambassador Sung Kim and Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

"These planes are the latest ... manifestation of all that our alliance is supposed to be, a partnership of two old friends and two strong allies who work together, fight together and overcome adversity together," Kim said at a handover ceremony in Manila.

The donated planes, along with the sales of defence equipment, are the latest support from Washington to help President Rodrigo Duterte root out militants who have been fighting government troops in the southern city of Marawi for more than two months.

The US has taken a significant support role for Manila in the Marawi conflict, the biggest security challenge of Duterte's government, even as he sought to loosen the 65-year-old alliance and seek closer ties with China.

The US has also flown P3 Orion surveillance aircraft over Marawi while US Special Forces troops based in the southern region of Mindanao have been operating drones, both aimed at helping Philippine forces locate the well-entrenched militants in fighting that has claimed more than 600 lives.

Kim said the US had also begun delivering some 200 227kg (500-pound) bombs, nearly a thousand rockets, and hundreds of pistols and grenade launchers purchased by the Philippines.

Washington will also in the coming months transfer to the Philippine military aerial surveillance systems "to further bolster (Manila's) capabilities to fight those that threaten peace and security of the Philippines", Kim said.

Lorenzana told reporters the Cessna surveillance planes would see action in Marawi, as well as patrol areas of the South China Sea claimed by Manila but disputed by Beijing.

China claims most of the strategically important and mineral-rich sea, including waters close to the shores of the Philippines and other neighbours.

"For this kind of surveillance plane, this is the most modern that we have. We did not have any beforehand," Lorenzana told reporters.

Nearly a month ago Beijing shipped some 50 million yuan (RM31.7 million) worth of assault and sniper rifles and ammunition to help the Philippines in its Marawi military operation.

It was the first example of Chinese military aid since Duterte threatened to move away from Manila's traditional ally Washington and seek Beijing's support. — AFP