CLARK, Philippines (AFP, REUTERS) - US Defence Secretary James Mattis on Monday (Oct 23) praised the Philippines for its successes in battling ISIS supporters, as he began an Asian trip aimed at reaffirming American support for regional allies.
Mattis echoed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's statement last week that Filipino forces had "liberated" the southern city of Marawi, after five months of bitter urban fighting that had claimed more than 1,000 lives.
"One of the first things I'm going to do when I get there is commend the Philippine military for liberating Marawi from the terrorists," Mattis told reporters on the flight to the Philippines, according to an official transcript.
"It was a very tough fight as you know in southern Mindanao (the local region). And I think the Philippine military sends a very strong message to the terrorists."
Gunmen who had pledged allegiance to ISIS occupied parts of Marawi, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23 in what Duterte said was a bid to establish a South-east Asian caliphate there.
Hundreds of insurgents withstood a US-backed military campaign, including near daily air strikes and artillery fire, that displaced more than 400,000 people and left large parts of Marawi in ruins.
Duterte last week travelled to Marawi to declare it had been "liberated", a day after the South-east Asian leader for ISIS, Isnilon Hapilon, was shot dead there.
The country's defence minister said on Monday the Philippines has declared an end to five months of fighting in the city.
"There are no more militants in Marawi," Delfin Lorenzana told reporters in Clark during a meeting of regional defence ministers. The armed forces chief General Eduardo Ano said at least 42 bodies of rebels had been found in two buildings and a mosque in the battle zone.
Mattis flew to the Philippines to attend a meeting hosted by South-east Asian defence ministers at the former American military base of Clark, two hours' drive north of Manila.
The Philippines is a former American colony and the two nations are bound by a mutual defence treaty.
But relations have soured under Duterte as he has sought to build closer ties with China and Russia.
Defence ministers from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Russia are also scheduled to attend the two-day Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) event.
Mattis' Asia trip, which will also take him to Thailand and South Korea, comes ahead of US President Donald Trump's visit to Asia next month.
Some American allies in the region have become wary of Trump's interest in Asia.
Mattis sought to reassure allies. "The US remains unambiguously committed to supporting Asean," Mattis said.