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Philippines' Duterte lauds China's help at 'crucial moment' in Marawi battle

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday heaped praise on visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for what he said was China’s “critical” role in expediting the end of a five-month war with Islamist insurgents in a Philippine town.

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Duterte credited China with supplying what he said was the rifle that on Oct. 16 killed Islamic State’s regional point man, Isnilon Hapilon, and said he would present that weapon to China as a mark of appreciation for its help in the war in Marawi City.

“I am going to return to you the rifle so that the Chinese people would know, it was critical, it is a symbol of the critical help,” Duterte told Li, the first Chinese premier to visit the Philippines in a decade.

There are doubts, however, about if it really was a Chinese sniper rifle that killed Hapilon, and uncertainty about whether the military has used any of the 6,100 guns Beijing has donated since June.

The Philippine defence minister recently said all those weapons were given to the police.

Hapilon was killed by members of the 8th Scout Ranger Company. “Scout Ranger Books”, a Facebook page of one of the ranger officers, gave a blow-by-blow account of the operation and said the shot that killed Hapilon came from a gun mounted on an armoured vehicle.

Members of the unit also told media the shot came from a fixed weapon controlled remotely. Such weapons are typically 50-calibre machine guns.

“The arms you gave us, helped abbreviate, shorten the military fight there,” Duterte said.

On Friday, he said something similar to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He told him Russia had “helped us turn the tide and to shorten the war” by supplying weapons that Philippine soldiers used to kill militant snipers in Marawi.

The Russian arms were actually delivered two days after military operations were declared over.

The conflict was the biggest and longest battle in the Philippines since World War Two. More than 1,000 people, most of them rebel gunmen, were killed and 353,000 were displaced.

Duterte told Li China’s help came at “the crucial moment when we needed most and there was nobody to help us at that time”.

His remarks may not sit well with the United States and Australia, which from the early stages of the conflict were providing technical support to Philippine forces, including surveillance aircraft to pinpoint locations of militants.

Li said China would provide 150 million yuan ($22.7 million) to help with reconstruction in Marawi. He praised Duterte for last year putting aside festering disputes with China and visiting Beijing, a trip he said was an “ice-breaker”.

Philippine security analyst Renato De Castro said the information Duterte gave to Li was inaccurate, but consistent with his policy of “total appeasement” of China.

“I’m really surprised, I don’t know whether it’s flattery or an outright lie,” he told news channel ANC.

Editing by Robert Birsel