MANILA (AFP) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has demanded the United States return church bells seized by American forces in a bloody campaign more than a century ago, in another blast at his country's traditional ally.
American forces took three bells from the Catholic church of Balangiga town on the eastern island of Samar in 1901 as war booty in what historians said was a particularly brutal military operation in the new US colony.
"Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are not yours. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage," Duterte said at his annual State of the Nation Address on Monday (July 24).
"Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonisers and sacrificed their lives in the process."
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Two of the bells are installed at a memorial for US war dead in Wyoming, while the third is with US forces in South Korea.
Some US politicians oppose the dismantling of the memorial.
US embassy spokeswoman Molly Koscina gave a non-committal reply on Tuesday to Duterte's demands.
"We are aware that the bells of Balangiga have deep significance for a number of people, both in the United States and in the Philippines," she said in an email to AFP.
"We will continue to work with our Filipino partners to find a resolution."
The brutal Samar campaign was launched about a month after Filipino rebels killed 34 US troops in Balangiga on September 28, 1901, according to a US Army War College research paper.
Seven other American soldiers perished during the escape from Balangiga, and US reinforcements razed the town the day after, it added.
Duterte on Monday repeated a Filipino account of the campaign that the commanding general, Jacob Smith, ordered Samar be turned into a "howling wilderness" and that all Filipino males aged 10 or above be killed.
A 1902 US court-martial convicted Smith of a minor offence in relation to the Samar campaign, while 39 other Americans were separately found guilty of torturing and shooting Filipino prisoners there, the US Army War College research paper said.
However none of them were jailed, according to the paper.
The then Philippine president Fidel Ramos first sought but failed to recover the bells during a 1998 Washington trip.
Duterte, a self-described socialist, has since his election last year worked to distance Manila from Washington while building closer ties with China and Russia.
The Philippine islands, a Spanish colony for centuries, were ceded to the United States in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. The Philippines gained independence from the Americans in 1946.
Duterte has repeatedly lashed out at the US as ties have frayed, and last Friday vowed he would never visit the "lousy" country despite an earlier invitation extended by US President Donald Trump.