PH seeks ASEAN support over ISIS threat

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Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 23) — The Philippines wants stronger military cooperation with its ASEAN neighbors and major allies, as the Defense chief credits foreign assistance for helping the government crush the ISIS threat in Mindanao.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced the end to all combat operations in Marawi on Monday and shared the victory with the Philippine partners.

"We would like to thank the nations that helped us: China, the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore," Lorenzana said in his speech.

The government's declaration of victory was perfectly timed as the Philippines chairs the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting in Clark, Pampanga on Monday and Tuesday. In attendance are defense chiefs from all 10 ASEAN states, as well as their counterparts in Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the U.S.

Lorenzana said the meetings would "focus on the progress of defense cooperation, to include new initiatives and the way forward" for the ASEAN.

The Defense chief avoided politics when pressed about what countries he would seek new agreements with — particularly with China and the U.S. both vying for dominance in the region.

He noted that both nations have extended generous support to the Philippines during the battle for Marawi.

China has donated firearms and ammunition for soldiers, as well as heavy equipment for construction. The United States, meanwhile, has been sharing its intelligence from its combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, flagging terrorists who could be moving between the Middle East and Mindanao.

"We will be cooperating with all countries in the region, not only with China but especially the ASEAN who are vulnerable to these kinds of security threats, like India and Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei," Lorenzana said.

The Philippines already conducts joint sea and air patrols with Indonesia and Malaysia to prevent the movement of militants from one country to another. The siege in Marawi saw not just local Maute members but also foreign fighters participating.

Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad was one of the government's prime suspects and believed to have financed the Marawi attack. The Armed Forces of the Philippines believes Ahmad was killed in a military operation last week, shortly after Abu Sayyaf-Basilan leader Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, one of the two founders of the Maute group, were taken down as well.

For its part, Australia also lent support to the Philippines by sending over two of its spy planes. They conduct surveillance information on Marawi, mapping out enemy positions.

Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne visited one of its AP-3C Orion aircraft in Clark on Monday and met with personnel to thank them for their service.

Payne said she was slated to talk to Lorenzana on Tuesday, adding Australia has always been ready to help given its longstanding alliance with the country.

"Australia and the Philippines have an extremely long, shared regional and military history. The engagement here with the [aircraft] in surveillance activity has been an extension of that, a very important extension of that," she told reporters.