MANILA (AFP, PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – The United States said the Philippine government had not officially communicated President Rodrigo Duterte’s demand to pull US military advisers out of the rebellion-torn southern Philippines.
Since 2002, up to 600 US advisers have been deployed in the Mindanao region to train troops battling Muslim extremists but their numbers have been scaled down in recent years.
A week after calling US President Barack Obama a “son of a whore”, the incendiary leader said Monday (Sept 12) US Special Forces in the region “have to go”.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay however attempted to downplay Duterte’s comments, saying Tuesday they were “in the context of wanting to save the lives of these Americans who might be exposing themselves to unnecessary risk” from militant attacks.
In Washington, the Pentagon and State Department said they had not been officially contacted by Manila about pulling out the remaining advisers, who Yasay said now numbered about 100.
“We will continue to consult closely with our Filipino partners to appropriately tailor our assistance to whatever approach the new administration adopts,” Pentagon spokesman Gary Ross said.
State Department spokesman John Kirby also said they were not aware of any official request from the Philippine government.
Yasay, interviewed by Manila’s ABS-CBN network, confirmed the allies had not discussed Duterte’s demand.
Duterte, 71, has said he is “not a fan” of the United States and on Monday revealed that he had purposely skipped the meeting of Asean leaders with Obama in Vientiane, Laos last week.
The President said that the snub was a matter of principle. "The reason is not I am anti-West. The reason is that I do not like the Americans. It's simply a matter of principle for me," he was quoted saying by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The President's disclosure contradicted a previous official statement released by the office of the presidential palace that Duterte failed to attend the Asean-US summit because he was under the weather.
On Monday, he also explained his demand for the US to pull its forces by showing pictures of US troops killing Muslims as America took control of its new colony in the early 1900s.
He has said the spat was triggered by State Department criticism of his controversial war on drug crime, which has left about 3,000 people dead since he began his six-year term in July.
Obama has said Duterte must conduct his crime war “the right way”, protecting human rights.
Yasay stressed that Duterte’s new comments did not signal a shift in policy, and that ties with the US remained strong.
The president only wanted to protect Americans from kidnappings and terrorism as they had become “a very good target”, Yasay said.
“There is no shift in so far as our policy is concerned with respect to our close friendship with the Americans.” Yasay, who was heading to Washington for talks, added the Duterte administration would honour existing defence agreements including a 2014 accord giving the US military access to at least five Philippine bases, one of them in Mindanao.
His comments were in sharp contrast to an initial explanation by Duterte spokesman Ernesto Abella, who said the demand “reflects (Duterte’s) new direction towards coursing an independent foreign policy”.
On Monday, Mr Duterte said US military presence could complicate offensives against Islamist militants notorious for beheading Westerners.