President Rodrigo Duterte said on Sunday he did not seek support from Washington to end the siege of a southern Philippines town by Islamist militants, a day after the United States said it was providing assistance at the request of the government.
Duterte told a news conference in Cagayan de Oro City, about 100 km (62 miles) from the besieged town of Marawi, that he had “never approached America” for help.
When asked about U.S. support to fight the pro-Islamic State militants in Marawi City on the island of Mindanao, Duterte said he was “not aware of that until they arrived.”
The cooperation between the longtime allies in the battle is significant because Duterte, who came to power a year ago, has taken a hostile stance towards Washington and has vowed to eject U.S. military trainers and advisers from his country.
It is unclear whether the pro-American military went over Duterte’s head in seeking U.S. help.
The Philippines military said on Saturday U.S. forces were providing technical assistance but had no “boots on the ground”, confirming a statement from the U.S. embassy in Manila which said the support had been requested by the government. [nL3N1J7054]
The seizure of Marawi on May 23 by hundreds of local and foreign fighters has alarmed Southeast Asian nations, which fear the ultra-radical group Islamic State is trying to establish a stronghold on Mindanao that could threaten their region.
The Pentagon, which has no permanent presence in the Philippines but for years has kept 50 to 100 special forces troops in the south of the country on rotational exercises, confirmed it was helping the Philippine military in Marawi.
It said in a statement on Saturday it was providing Philippine forces with security assistance and training in the areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It said it had an additional 300 to 500 troops in the country to support regular training and activities, without giving further details.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said support included aerial surveillance and targeting, electronic eavesdropping, communications assistance and training. A U.S. P-3 Orion surveillance plane was seen over the town on Friday.