MANILA, Philippines (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday that the violent influence of the Islamic State group could be emboldening militants in the southern Philippines who last week killed 18 Filipino troops.
Carter expressed condolences and compared the slain Filipino soldiers to U.S. troops buried at an American World War II cemetery in Manila where he laid a wreath Thursday.
"Like those buried at the American cemetery, these fallen Philippine allies have made the ultimate sacrifice," Carter said at a news conference with his Filipino counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin.
The Philippine deaths were another reason why the Middle East-based group should be destroyed, he said.
Gazmin said the Abu Sayyaf militants who clashed with the Filipino troops were trying to affiliate with the IS extremists in Syria and Iraq but there has been no evidence that the group had a presence in the country.
"It is a worldwide phenomenon of others who have associated themselves with ISIL and that maybe what we are seeing here by groups in the Philippines," Carter said, using another acronym for the IS.
The slain soldiers were among troops carrying out a major offensive against the Abu Sayyaf. They died in a clash Saturday on southern Basilan island.
At least 24 militants, including a Moroccan bomb-expert, have been killed in the ongoing offensive, the Philippine military said.
The Philippine military deaths were its largest single-day combat loss this year.