U.S. Special Forces have joined the Philippine army in attempting to retake Marawi City from fighters loyal to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The jihadists overran the city on May 23: in the ensuing battle, 58 troops, 138 militants and 20 civilians died.
Speaking at a news conference in the southern city, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said that the new U.S. forces would not be fighting but instead “providing technical support.”
Washington’s involvement comes at an uncertain time for U.S.-Philippine relations. In October and again in December, the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte called for U.S. troops to leave the Philippines as he pursued a closer relationship with China. In April, however, U.S. President Donald Trump reported having a “very friendly conversation” with Duterte who has overseen a wave of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects. In a move that stunned human rights groups, Trump asked Duterte to visit him at the White House.
The U.S. embassy in the Philippine capital Manila confirmed the presence of U.S. troops in Marawi city, thought it wouldn’t go into operational details, Reuters reported. The embassy said that the troops were there at the request of Duterte’s government.
Speaking to reporters, Herrera said that the militants were now confined to just three districts in the city. Despite missing several deadlines by which to rout the group, army spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla Jr promised that ISIS would be out of Marawi City by Monday—Philippine independence day.
The army is also looking into reports that Omar and Abdullah Maute, leaders of the Islamist Maute Group have been killed. Their faction, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in April 2015, is one of several main groups occupying the embattled city.
Also embroiled in the fighting are 40 foreigners, predominantly from nearby Indonesia and Malaysia. Their involvement, as well as ISIS’ presence in southeast Asia has alarmed the region, which fears the group may try and establish a stronghold there as it continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria.
Around 200 militants are believed to be in Marawi City, with 500 to 1,000 civilians also trapped there. Some are said to be without food or water while reports have emerged that the fighters have used some people as human shields.