SYDNEY - The Australian government is sending two military surveillance aircraft to help the Philippines in its fight against Islamist militants in southern Mindanao province. Philippine forces have been fighting insurgents linked to the Islamic State group, who seized the city of Marawi last month.
Defense officials in Canberra say the spread of radical Islamism in southeast Asia poses a direct threat to Australian interests. The government is sending two AP-3C Orion reconnaissance aircraft to help Philippine forces locate militants in the city of Marawi, which they seized in late May.
About 400 people, mostly Islamist insurgents, have died since the siege began. One thousand civilians are thought to be trapped in the city, where it is feared that some are being held as human shields as Filipino forces advance. Tens of thousands of other residents have been displaced.
A Philippine military spokesman said the Australian spy planes would help tackle extremism across Mindanao, an island of 22 million people in the southern Philippines, where separatists and kidnap gangs have been active for decades.
Analysts believe that jihadis from other countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia, have joined the fighting in Marawi.
Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, is worried that some of these foreign fighters could return home to spread unrest there.
“It is clear that what is happening in Marawi affects Indonesia and Malaysia. There are clearly fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia who are working with this coalition in Marawi, and there is always the chance that fighters now with new combat experience and with new legitimacy can come back to their own countries and conduct violence there," said Jones.
Security experts say the battle in Marawi has exposed intelligence and operational failures by the Philippines military. They also criticize what they see as limited cooperation with neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia to stop extremism from spreading across the region.
Foreign ministers from the three southeast Asian countries have agreed on new measures to share information and to start joint navy patrols to restrict the movement of fighters across maritime borders.