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MANILA (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday transferred to the Philippines two brand-new, single-engine surveillance planes, boosting the capability of its former colony to patrol sprawling maritime borders, including pirate-infested southern waters.

At a ceremony at an air base in Manila, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said two Cessna 208B aircraft were fitted with electro-optical sensors and other surveillance equipment to detect ships in the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea.

"These planes will give us more capability to patrol our seas and guard against intrusions," Lorenzana said. "These are not spy planes, only surveillance aircraft, because they are not stealth."

The military variant of the plane can operate for hours at an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 metres) and has a range of 1,000 nautical miles (1,852 kilometres).

The planes, worth about $2 million each, can also be used against Islamist militants in Marawi City on the southern island of Mindanao. But the whole package costs $30 million, including the surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance (ISR) gear.

Philippine troops have been battling hundreds of pro-Islamic State militants who seized Marawi City on May 23, killing nearly 600 people and displacing close to 500,000 residents in Lanao del Sur.

Military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said the United States decided last year to transfer the planes under its $425-million Maritime Security Initiative to help Southeast Asian countries tackle regional security challenges, including China's assertiveness in the South China Sea.

The Philippines got more than 80 percent of the $49.72 million allocated in 2016 under the MSI programme, a reward after Manila agreed to allow the United States access to its five bases.

Two Eagle Scan unmanned aerial vehicles will also be donated by September to help tactical units defeat Islamist militants.

In February, Washington also donated hand-held Raven drones to the Philippine Marines operating against the Abu Sayyaf militants on the southern island of Jolo.

The military said it had bought hundreds of 500-pound bombs and unspecified rockets from the United States to replenish its inventory, depleted by daily bomb runs in Marawi City.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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Reuters