The United States has been providing the Philippines with surveillance capabilities, training, information and aircraft to help it fight a monthslong siege of a southern city by pro-Islamic State group militants, the top U.S. diplomat said Monday as he prepared to meet the country's polarizing president.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Manila for a regional gathering, said the equipment includes a few Cessna aircraft and a few drones. He said they'll help the Philippines battle "an enemy that fights in a way that most people have never had to deal with."
"We think they are beginning to get that situation under control," Tillerson told reporters. "But the real challenge is going to come with once they have the fighting brought to an end how to deal with the conditions on the ground to ensure it does not re-emerge."
Nearly 700 people have died in the intense fighting, including 528 militants and 122 soldiers and policemen, since hundreds of black flag waving gunmen stormed into buildings and homes in the business district and outlying communities of mosque-studded Marawi, a center of Islamic faith in the southern third of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
Human rights groups have questioned President Donald Trump's willingness to engage with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been roundly criticized for a bloody war on illegal drugs that has killed thousands of suspects. But Tillerson argued there's no contradiction presented by the U.S. decision to help his country fight the militants, whose insurgency in the Philippines has stoked global fears about the Islamic State group exporting violence into Southeast Asia and beyond.
"I see no conflict - no conflict at all in our helping them with that situation and our views of the human rights concerns we have with respect to how they carry out their counter narcotics activities," Tillerson said.
Ahead of the meeting, the U.S. said Tillerson indeed would discuss with Duterte human rights along with all other relevant issues. Duterte's presidential spokesman, Ernesto Bella, said Monday that the topic would include discuss global terrorism threats, economic cooperation and security in Marawi, the city that has been under militant siege for more than two months.
"We also welcome the opportunity to address concerns such as human rights if and when raised," Bella said in a statement. "We have always included this issue in our discussions and engagements with foreign governments, particularly Western democracies."