MANILA – The Philippines has not received formal notice of the United States’ reported plan to conduct air strikes in conflict-stricken Marawi City, with the military chief saying such proposal should go through a process given limits to direct US military action.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff Eduardo Año said the military has “yet to receive any formal notice or offer for such air capability deployment.”
“The existing Mutual Defense Treaty provides that only technical assistance and training may be allowed under the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB),” said the military chief, in reference to the long-standing Philippine-US defense pact.
“Direct military actions may only be allowed during actual invasion of the Philippines by another state actor,” he added.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, citing comments from Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, meanwhile said “that matter has not been discussed between the two countries.”
US news network NBC reported Monday that the Pentagon is considering a plan that would allow the US military to conduct air strikes on Islamic State strongholds in the besieged city of Marawi.
The strikes would likely be conducted by armed drones, the report added.
The US has been giving technical assistance to its treaty ally, Philippines. US and Filipino officials, however, have stressed that there are no American boots on the ground.
Año expressed appreciation for the US’ “reported desire” to help the Philippines end the lingering crisis in the southern city, where clashes between state forces and Islamic State-linked terrorists have been going on for more than two months.
But, said Año, such plan must undergo a process.
“Such proposition if any, has to undergo a process. And a covenant must be had between the Commanders-in-Chief of both nations before that option my be adopted,” he said.
Washington has been providing Manila technical assistance and military hardware amid the long-drawn conflict.
Recently, the US government turned over to the Philippines two brand new surveillance aircraft worth $33 million and weapons to the Philippines.
The US, the Philippines’ strongest defense ally, has continued to provide military aid despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s repeated tirades against its officials, largely due to criticism of his war on drugs.
Duterte, who has shifted the Philippines away from its traditional alliance with the US while cozying up to China and Russia, earlier blasted the Americans for selling or giving secondhand defense equipment to the military.
But in meeting US State Department Rex Tillerson on Monday, Duterte was amiable, saying he was America’s “humble friend in Southeast Asia.”
The battle in Marawi has been raging on since May 23, when Islamic State-inspired militants captured parts of the once-vibrant Islamic city. It has left at least 695 dead, mostly terrorists. It has also displaced some 200,000 from the city and thousands more from nearby areas.
The violent clashes prompted Duterte to place the entire Mindanao under martial law, saying local terrorists were aiming to establish an Islamic State province in the Philippines. The initial 60-day martial law declaration has been extended to the end of the year.
The emergence of groups pledging allegiance to Islamic State has been considered the biggest security problem to face the year-old Duterte administration.
The rise of pro-Islamic State groups in the country has also raised alarm in Washington and the Philippines’ neighbors in the region, which fear that the notorious terror group was seeking to establish a new front in Asia amid its successive losses in Iraq and Syria.
Countering terrorism was high on the agenda of foreign ministers from Southeast Asia and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region during their annual meeting held in Manila this week. — with a report from Jeff Hernaez, ABS-CBN News