Philippines, Australia hold drill – ‘Battle for Marawi to end soon’

The Royal Australian Navy HMAS Adelaide cruises alongside landing crafts with Philippine Marines and Australian troops as they conduct a joint Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) exercise off Subic Bay in northwestern Philippines on Oct 15. (AP)

SUBIC BAY, Philippines, Oct 15, (Agencies): Filipino and Australian naval forces darted across the sea and landed on a Philippine wharf in a disaster-response drill Sunday that reflects their deepening security ties in a region prone to calamities, piracy and territorial rifts. Lt Col Daniel Turner of the Australian Defence Force said the naval maneuvers in Subic Bay, northwest of Manila, will strengthen the two countries’ ability to jointly respond to typhoons and other disasters when roads, bridges and ports are damaged or destroyed.

The drills reflect the strengthening security relations between the two US allies despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s often antagonistic stance toward American security policy.

Australia and the United States have deployed surveillance aircraft to help Filipino troops quell a disastrous siege by pro-Islamic State group militants in southern Marawi city. During the maneuvers, more than 100 Philippine marines and Australian naval personnel took off from an Australian navy ship, the HMAS Adelaide, on board troop carriers then rushed to a port at Subic Bay, a former US naval base. Two Associated Press journalists were allowed to witness the exercises from a helicopter.

When typhoons and floods happen, “traditional infrastructure is damaged and the only way we could get to the affected area is through helicopters and landing craft,” Turner said. “Our militaries can operate together, support those affected people.” Australia signed a 2007 accord that allows its forces to train in the Philippines. Australia is the only country aside from the United States with which Manila has forged such a defense pact, commonly known as a status of forces agreement.

Subic Bay faces the South China Sea, where China, the Philippines and four other governments have long-unresolved territorial disputes, but Australian officials stressed that Sunday’s exercises were aimed only at improving the ability of Australian and Philippine forces to deal jointly with natural catastrophes. Meanwhile, Philippine troops Sunday bombed militants loyal to the Islamic State group who have held out for over four months in a southern city and the military said the confl ict would be over “very soon”. The army previously set a target of Sunday to end the fighting in Marawi, which it said has killed more than 1,000 people. Troops have missed previous deadlines to flush out the militants whom authorities said intended to establish a local IS caliphate.

On Sunday FA-50 fighter jets fl ew over Marawi as soldiers fought the militants house-to-house in an area which has now shrunk to about five acres (two hectares), a military spokesman said. “We are hoping that we will end this Marawi siege very soon,” Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the task force battling the militants, told reporters.

Pro-IS gunmen occupied parts of Marawi, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23. Since then 822 militants, 162 government forces and 47 civilians have been killed, Brawner said. The insurgents have withstood a relentless US-backed bombing campaign and intense ground battles with troops that have left large parts of Marawi resembling devastated cities in war-torn Syria and Iraq. Military commanders last week set a target of Oct 15 to end the fighting and President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday said the battle was “almost over”.

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