CLARK FREEPORT ZONE, Philippines (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday praised Filipino soldiers for defeating pro-Islamic State militants in a five-month battle in a southern Philippine city without allegations of human rights violations.
The Philippines on Monday announced the end of combat operations in Marawi City after troops killed 42 remaining militants, including some foreign fighters. More than 1,100 people, including 165 troops, died in the conflict.
“Here’s an army that had to go in a fight like that, and they had not one human rights allegation against them with any credibility,” Mattis told reporters at the end of the two-day ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting at a former U.S. air force base.
“Not one, and when you look at how bloody awful that fight was, that’s really a statement about the Philippine military that set a human rights condition in the midst of that fight the way they did so.”
Mattis’ praise for the military was a rare appreciation as the Philippines’ human rights record under President Rodrigo Duterte has been strongly criticized by Western countries, including the United States, Canada, European Union and Australia.
At the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting, these countries called on the Philippines to end killings in Duterte’s fierce drug war. More than 3,900 people had been killed by the police, which claimed self-defense, in anti-drug operations since July last year.
The United States provided critical tactical intelligence in the Marawi combat operation, deploying surveillance planes and drones, thermal imaging and eavesdropping equipment to help Filipino troops neutralize hundreds of militants who seized the lakeside town on May 23.
Mattis exchanged views and discussed security threats in the Asia and Pacific region, like North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, maritime security, terrorism and non-traditional military threats.
Mattis also reaffirmed Washington’s “ironclad commitment” to the alliance with Manila during a meeting on Tuesday night with Duterte, where he emphasized the importance of “shared rules-based international order”.
“It was a very good discussion with the president and we talked about the way ahead and we’re on the same team,” he told reporters.
Duterte, known for his strident anti-American rhetoric, has made no secret of his plans to cultivate ties with America’s rivals, Russia and China. Those efforts appear to be starting to bear fruit.
Duterte on Wednesday visited one of five Russian warships as Moscow donated 5,000 assault rifles, steel helmets, ammunition and 20 army trucks and received China’s defense minister later in the day. China donated heavy equipment for the cleanup of Marawi.
Writing by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie