MANILA, Philippines — The US has vowed to continue assisting the Philippines against terrorism as clearing operations in Marawi continue and the government prepares to rebuild the country's only Islamic City.
In a joint statement, the US and the Philippines agreed to enhance their cooperation in counterterrorism efforts, which could be in the form of additional military exercises, enhanced information sharing and tackling of the roots of conflict and extremism.
US President Donald Trump also expressed his condolences over the "tragic loss of life" in Marawi City following a deadly and protracted siege by combined elements of the Maute group and the Abu Sayyaf, who mounted a five-month stand in the lakeside city's commercial center. More than 1,000 people perished in the battle, most of whom combatants.
"Both sides discussed the rehabilitation and reconstruction needs of Marawi and pledged to continue discussions for the rebuilding of Marawi," the joint statement said.
Trump also vowed to support the rehabilitation of the war-ravaged city whose downtown area has been reduced to ruins and rubble and whose residents were forced to flee the fighting that began on May 23 and lasted until October.
"President Trump expressed his condolences for the tragic loss of life in Marawi City at the hands of ISIS-affiliated terrorists, and congratulated the Armed Forces of the Philippines for its success in liberating Marawi," it said.
The siege of Marawi exposed loopholes in the Philippine military's capability to address terror threats especially in the light of the possibility that some IS fighters in the Middle East would return to their home countries in Southeast Asia as the group backpedalled in the region.
The war was so destructive that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana estimated that at least P50 billion would be needed to rehabilitate and rebuild the capital of Lanao del Sur province.
Mutual Defense Treaty reaffirmed
Washington and Manila also reaffirmed their commitment to their Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 as reinforced by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement during their leaders' bilateral meeting.
The two sides also discussed efforts of the US to help in the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, one of the weakest militaries in the region, develop capacity and capability for maritime security and domain awareness and provide humanitarian assistance.
"They also reaffirmed their commitment to continue defense cooperation, including by reinforcing respective national defense capabilities and interoperability and enhancing joint activities, disaster response, and cyber-security," the document stated.
During their meeting, Trump and President Rodrigo Duterte praised the enduring alliance of the US and the Philippines which they said was built on a strong foundation of shared values, sacrifices and history, and bolstered by common interests, people-to-people ties and full respect for legal and diplomatic processes.
"They pledged to expand cooperation and reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening the bilateral alliance—a 70-year partnership that has stood the test of time and ensures both countries’ mutual security and contributes to regional peace, stability, and economic prosperity," their statement said.
Trump is in Manila for the Association of Southeast Asian Nation summit and its related meetings including the East Asia Forum. This is the last leg of his five-nation swing in Asia during which he met the leaders of Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.