MANILA - Russia on Wednesday turned over firearms and various military equipment to the Philippines, as ties between Manila and Moscow get warmer under President Rodrigo Duterte.
The military equipment donation, the first from Russia under the Duterte administration, is composed of 5,000 units of AK-47M Kalashnikov rifles, 20 multi-purpose vehicles, 1 million pieces of ammunition, and 5,000 steel helmets.
Duterte witnessed the turnover of the military equipment during his tour of the Russian anti-submarine ship Admiral Pantaleyev.
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has sought to build stronger ties with Russia and China, considered rivals of the US, the Philippines’ long-standing Pacific ally. The Armed Forces has long relied on US hardware.
He had repeatedly expressed his desire to procure firearms from Russia, especially in the wake of reports that the US State Department had stopped its rifle sales to the Philippine National Police following opposition from US Senator Ben Cardin.
Just recently, China also turned over 3,000 units of assault rifles to the Philippines. Lorenzana said the rifles would be used by the Philippine National Police.
Duterte had earlier blasted the US for criticism against his war on drugs, saying China and Russia appear to better understand the Philippines' narcotics problem.
Until recently, however, he has softened his tone and adopted a friendlier stance towards Washington, citing the latter’s help in fighting terrorism in Mindanao.
US UNFAZED BY RUSSIAN DONATION
Despite the warming of ties between Russia and the Philippines under Duterte, Manila’s treaty ally Washington appeared unfazed.
US Ambassador Sung Kim played down any US concerns about Duterte's outreach to China and Russia and noted that the United States, a former colonial power, was the country's only treaty ally, with far deeper ties in the Philippines.
"I'm not really threatened by this notion that China or Russia are providing some military equipment to the Philippines," Kim told a small group of reporters traveling with US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
"We have been providing very important equipment to the Philippines for many, many years. The fact that the Chinese and the Russians have provided some rifles, I'm not sure is really such a cause for concern for the United States."
Duterte's often profanity-laden tirades against the United States have become his trademark during his year-old presidency, and he has chided Washington for treating his country "like a dog," despite the longstanding US assistance.
Ahead of a visit by US President Donald Trump to the Philippines, the US envoy cited an improvement in "tone and substance" in bilateral ties over the 10 months since he's been in his post.
"President Duterte has made clear that even as he pursues improved relations with countries like China and Russia, he will continue to focus on making sure that the US-Philippines alliance remains strong," Kim said.
US ROLE IN ENDING MARAWI SIEGE
The same day that US Defense Secretary James Mattis landed in the Philippines for a gathering of defense ministers, Manila announced the end of five months of military operations in a southern city of Marawi held by pro-Islamic State rebels, after a fierce and unfamiliar urban war that marked the country's biggest security crisis in years.
The rebel occupation stunned a military inexperienced in urban combat and stoked wider concerns that Islamic State loyalists have gained influence among local Muslims and have ambitions to use the island of Mindanao as a base for operations in Southeast Asia.
Mattis, on his flight to the Philippines, commended Manila on the operation and on Tuesday discussed ways to deepen US-Philippines military ties in talks with the Philippine defense minister.
"It was a tough fight," Mattis said during his flight, adding he thought the Philippines had sent "a very necessary message to the terrorists."
Kim said the US military assistance made a "huge difference" in the battle in Marawi, particularly its intelligence support, including with the deployment of Gray Eagle and P-3 Orion aircraft.
"I think all of us were surprised by the extent of infiltration by the terrorists into Marawi City," he said.
"When you encounter a situation like that, you obviously need good intelligence to be able to target key areas and I think that's where our support was quite critical." - with Reuters