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Philippines disputes reported US airstrikes plan

Debris flies in the air as Air Force planes bomb suspected locations of Maute terrorists in Marawi City. AP, File

MANILA, Philippines — Top defense officials denied the report that Pentagon is eyeing a plan that would allow the United States to conduct airstrikes against militants behind the monthslong siege of Marawi City.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Eduardo Año said there were no discussions with the United States regarding airstrikes against local targets.

READ: ISIS central provided Marawi militants with funding, says report

NBC news reported that two US defense officials divulged plans of the Pentagon to have American troops granted the authority to strike, likely through armed drones, ISIS-inspired militants in Marawi as part of an official military operation.

Año said, however, that the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States does not allow such a measure.

"Direct military actions are only allowed during actual foreign invasion by another state actor. Hence, such a proposition has to undergo a process and an agreement must be reached that should have the approval of both the highest officials of our nations," the DND said Tuesday in a statement.

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The two officials, however, said they welcome the reported desire of the longtime US ally to help the country in fighting local ISIS-inspired groups.

READ: As Marawi siege rages, US troops train Filipinos in urban warfare

The DND said that although security relations and counter-terrorism efforts between the two countries are robust, the assistance provided by the US is limited to technical assistance, sharing of information and training.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who attended the ASEAN summit this week, said Monday that the United States provided the Philippines with a few Cessna aircraft and drones to help with surveillance capabilities against pro-ISIS militants.

"We think they are beginning to get that situation under control. But the real challenge is going to come with once they have the fighting brought to an end how to deal with the conditions on the ground to ensure it does not re-emerge," Tillerson told reporters.

READ: US aircraft to help Philippines fight pro-ISIS militants in Marawi

The United States' top diplomat also argued that he sees no conflict between Washington's concerns on human rights in the Philippines as deaths mount in President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war and their help in resolving the Marawi crisis.

US President Donald Trump has been criticized for extending an invitation to Duterte to visit the White House. Experts said this could send a message that human rights take a back seat in Washington.

Sidney Jones, an expert on Southeast Asia militant networks, warned that the attack on Marawi City has galvanized Southeast Asian supporters of ISIS. She said this spells a higher risk of attacks in other Philippine cities as well as an expansion of cooperation between militants across regional borders. ASEAN this week reaffirmed its commitment to curbing terror in the region.

The Armed Forces said less than a square kilometer of space in the heart of Marawi City remains problematic. 

READ: Gov't to begin evaluation of needs of displaced Marawi residents

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