Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has urged the United States to withdraw its special forces troops from a group of southern islands about a week after a diplomatic row between the two sides.
“They have to go,” Duterte said in a speech during an oath-taking ceremony for new officials on Monday. “I do not want a rift with America, but they have to go. It will just get more tense.”
Duterte further said the presence of the US troops in Mindanao could complicate Manila’s operations against the Daesh-linked Abu Sayyaf militant group, notorious for different terror attacks in the country, including killing Westerners.
“Americans, they (militants) will really kill them, they will try to kidnap them to get ransom,” the president said.
The US dispatched some 1,200 special forces to Mindanao in 2002 for what it called training and advising Philippine military units fighting local militants.
The program was discontinued in 2015, but a number of US soldiers remain there.
Abu Sayyaf, quite well-known for its kidnappings, beheadings and deadly bombings, was founded in 1991 in Basilan, a southern island, with a pledge to wage a war against the government.
The Takfiri group, now a Daesh affiliate, lost major commanders at the beginning of its fight and was gradually split into factions with a few hundred militants. The militant outfit continues to survive on ransom and extortion.
US: No official demand
However, the US State Department said no official communication took place between the two governments on the issue.
The Pentagon’s spokesman Commander Gary Ross said on Monday, “We will continue to consult closely with our Filipino partners to appropriately tailor our assistance to whatever approach the new Administration adopts.”
Duterte’s latest call comes more than a week after US President Barack Obama canceled a planned meeting with Duterte after the Philippine leader insulted him with vulgar and undiplomatic language.
However, the two met days later, with the Filipino president saying on September 9 that the insult was not directed against his US counterpart.
On Tuesday, Filipino Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay confirmed in an interview with Manila's ABS-CBN network that the partners had not discussed the withdrawal demand.
However, he said his country’s relations with the US will remain unchanged, attributing Duterte’s statement to his commitment to save lives of the Americans in the restive region.
“There is no shift in so far as our policy is concerned with respect to our close friendship with the Americans,” Yasay said while heading to Washington for talks.
He also stressed that Duterte’s government would honor the current defense agreements, including the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed between Washington and Manila in 2014 that give the US rotational access to at least five bases in the Philippines, one of them in Mindanao.
Yasay’s remarks contradicted earlier clarification by Duterte’s spokesman Ernesto Abella, who said the call “reflects (Duterte’s) new direction towards coursing an independent foreign policy.”