September 3, 2017 / 10:46 AM / 2 years ago

Philippines eyes counter-terrorism task force with Malaysia, Indonesia

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will discuss with Indonesia and Malaysia the possibility of creating a task force to combat Islamic State-inspired militancy, he said on Sunday.

FILE PHOTO: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wears a bulletproof vest and a helmet as he gives a pep talk to troops fighting the extremist Maute group in Marawi, Philippines August 24, 2017. Picture taken August 24, 2017. Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Duterte even expressed willingness to open the borders to Indonesian and Malaysian security forces hunting Islamist fighters. He plans to meet with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minster Najib Razak on the matter.

“We have agreed that we will talk, the three of us. We are just waiting for the right time,” he told reporters.

Asked what could be discussed, he said: “In all probability, it will be a joint ... task force. And I will open my borders to the Malaysian authorities and Indonesian authorities. They’ll be given access.”

Southeast Asian nations have agreed to use spy planes and drones to stem the movement of militants across their borders, as concerns rise over the growing clout of Islamic State in the region.

In June the three nations agreed to pool intelligence and tackle militant financing.

Last November, the Philippines agreed to allow Malaysia and Indonesia to carry out “hot pursuits” in its territorial waters to tackle kidnappings and piracy by Islamist Abu Sayyaf rebels.

Duterte indicated the meeting with Widodo and Najib could take place after the siege of Marawi city in southern Philippines involving militants loyal to Islamic State has been fully resolved.

More than 600 militants, 45 civilians and 136 soldiers and policemen have been killed in more than 100 days of fighting in Marawi. The military has expressed confidence the end is in sight for what has been its biggest security crisis in years.

Pockets of militants remain dug in in the ruins in Marawi, possibly together with their leader, Isnilon Hapilon, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said.

“Recent military assessments indicate that he is still very much in Marawi,” Abella said in a statement. “Our forces are hot on their heels and it will only be a matter of time before we get him.”

Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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