By Felipe Villamor and Dennis Jay Santos
President Rodrigo Duterte has told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that Philippine soldiers used China-made rifles in killing militant leader Isnilon Hapilon in October while ending a five-month siege of southern Marawi city, a claim discredited in the past.
Duterte met Xi briefly for bilateral talks Tuesday on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) in Hainan, China, during which the two leaders discussed cooperation efforts in broad terms, a statement from the Philippine leader’s office said Wednesday.
Duterte assured Xi of his country’s “fullest cooperation” in fighting terrorism, and emphasized the two countries’ growing bilateral ties. These have been on the mend following a bitter spat spurred by overlapping claims over several islands in the South China Sea.
Duterte underscored that bilateral relations had been promoted to a “higher level of friendship,” the Philippine presidential palace said.
Duterte expressed his “gratitude” to Xi for Beijing’s help in ending the Marawi siege, explaining that China had supplied the sniper rifle used to shoot dead Hapilon – the leader of the Philippine branch of the extremist group Islamic State (IS).
“It spelled the difference between victory and defeat, at least on a shorter term, that we are able to put down the terroristic activities that have perpetuated in Marawi,” Duterte said, according to the palace transcript.
Duterte noted that “it was a Chinese rifle that killed Isnilon Hapilon, the number one terrorist in the Marawi siege.”
How and where Duterte was basing his account, however, was not clear. China donated more than 6,000 rifles in two shipments in June and October last year, but the firearms were sent to the police, not the military, which spearheaded the assault in Marawi.
The Philippine Army’s 8th Scout Ranger unit had earlier given a detailed account of the operation that led to Hapilon’s death. They claimed he was felled by a heavier weapon mounted on a military vehicle. The rangers did not specify whether they used Chinese-made weapons.
Spokesmen for Duterte, as well as the military, were not immediately available to comment.
In China, Duterte also told Xi that his government “would like the fullest cooperation” with Beijing in battling transnational crime and terrorism.
“China and the Philippines can do more to boost military and defense cooperation,” Duterte said, citing a 2004 framework agreement on defense cooperation.
It was not clear, however, whether Duterte raised the issue of Marawi’s rehabilitation with Xi. A Chinese-led consortium had submitted a proposal to rebuild 250 hectares in Marawi, in areas where much of the heavy fighting was concentrated.
A technical team is currently evaluating the project proposal, costs and other details of the consortium led by the China State Construction Engineering Corp. LTD, according to the Task Force Bangon Marawi.
Hapilon’s pro-IS group, along with Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern fighters, held Marawi for five months beginning in May last year. More than 200,000 of the city’s residents fled, as the IS-linked fighters carried out killings and held dozens hostage.
He was killed in late October, ending a battle that killed more than 1,200 people, most of them militants. But about 200 other fighters are believed to have escaped and sought refuge in other remote areas of the southern Philippines controlled by pro-IS extremist groups.
Since taking office in June 2016, Duterte has publicly shown his efforts to gravitate closer to China, while publicly chastising the United States, the country’s main supplier of military equipment and weapons, for what he called Washington’s hypocrisy and for treating the Philippines “like a dog.”
In January this year, America’s ambassador to Manila, Sung Kim, announced that the United States Agency for International Development had set aside another U.S. $6.6 million (332.3 million pesos), bringing to $20.9 million (more than 1 billion pesos) the total funds allocated to help Marawi residents recover from the vicious fighting that left the local economy in tatters.
Froilan Gallardo from Cagayan de Oro City contributed to this report.