Australia has agreed to send two surveillance planes to help the fight against Islamic State-affiliated terrorists still holding out in Marawi City after more than five weeks.
The Philippines has accepted the offer of two AP-3C Orion aircraft to pinpoint Maute group fighters who have declared the Mindanao city as their own Islamic territory.
Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne said: “The regional threat from terrorism, in particular from Daesh [Islamic State] and foreign fighters, is a direct threat to Australia and our interests.”
Australia’s help comes as fears grow that the Maute group and other terrorist groups are attracting increasing numbers of foreign jihadis and aim to secure more territory under the black flag of IS.
The insurgency comes as IS continues to lose ground in the Middle East, encouraging Southeast Asian jihadis, and others, to eye the southern Philippines as a potential new stronghold.
Following the outbreak of fighting in Marawi, president Duterte declared martial law throughout Mindanao.
Philippine military spokesman Gilbert Gapay said the planes will help tackle extremism across the island of 22 million people, where separatists, pirates and kidnap gangs have thrived for decades — if not centuries.
He denied that the protracted battle to secure Marawi was a failure because the military had learned valuable lessons and had stopped IS from taking root.
“This gives us a picture of the expanse of their network,” he said. “They won’t thrive anymore in our country.”
However, security experts say the battle has exposed weaknesses in the Philippine military and highlighted the limited cooperation with neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia to stop extremism from spreading.
The three countries have now agreed on joint measures to to crackdown on the free movement of terrorists between the three countries.
Australia’s support comes after United States special forces arrived at the battlefront to provide technical and intelligence assistance.
The country’s troops, more adept at fighting in jungles and mountains, have found unfamiliar territory in the urban warfare that has devastated much of Marawi and displaced nearly 250,000 people.
The difficulty of clearing the city is exacerbated by the tradition of clan warfare in the region, which encourages families to build their homes as ‘mini-fortresses’ with strong basements and escape routes.
At least 300 civilians are believed to be either trapped in the city or held hostage as human shields.
A renewed push against the militants this week has seen increased aerial bombardment — however, ground operations have been hampered by roadside bombs, snipers and booby traps.
Military spokesman Jo-Ar Herrera said: “This is already their last stand and they are getting desperate.
“Our mission is to neutralise them so that they will no longer threaten other parts of the Philippines.”