Washington has given the Philippines machine guns, pistols and grenade launchers to reportedly battle Islamist insurgents in the besieged southern city of Marawi.
“This equipment will enhance the … counterterrorism capabilities, and help protect [personnel] actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines,” said a US embassy statement.
Philippine Marine Major General Emmanuel Salamat said at the ceremony where the weapons were handed over that his troops would use the arms in the city on Mindanao, the Philippines’ second largest island.
Terrorists flying black Islamic State flags rampaged through Marawi nearly two weeks ago, triggering firefights that have left at least 178 people dead.
The Philippines is bound to its former colonial master by a 1951 mutual-defence treaty to protect each other if attacked.
Washington is the Philippines’ biggest supplier of military hardware.
However, since taking office last year, President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to loosen ties with the US while forging closer relations with China and Russia.
Duterte has called for the withdrawal US troops while scaling down joint military exercises in response to US criticism of his bloody war on drugs.
Isis militants have stocked weapons and food in mosques, tunnels and basements to prepare for a long siege, Manila said.
Foreign insurgents apparently come from Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Morocco, amid fears that the terrorist group is developing an operational foothold on Mindanao.
Philippine officers said the main problem was that 500 to 600 civilians were still trapped in the city centre.
Duterte said on Saturday that Marawi would be liberated within three days, but commanders on the ground have been less bullish, giving conflicting estimates of how many combatants remained active.
Major General Carlito Galvez, Western Mindanao’s regional commander, said as many as 200 insurgents from the Maute group and others were still inside Marawi and had made preparations for a prolonged standoff.
“In houses we take over, we see .50 calibre, .30 calibre, and the ammunitions are huge. And the Maute, even if they fight two months they will not starve here,” he told the press.
“If you look at it, there are underground tunnels and basements that even a 500-pounder cannot destroy.”
The area of the town occupied by the militants had shrunk below 10 per cent, military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla told a news conference, adding that the army was pushing to meet Duterte’s deadline.
“Complications have been coming out: the continued use of civilians, potential hostages that may still be in their hands, the use of places of worship … and other factors that complicates the battle because of its urban terrain,” the general said.
“There are places which we use as passageways to enemy territory – when we reach those areas, sometimes we see old people who are weak, cannot move on their own, because of lack of food,” he added.
Picture credit: Archive Defense