The Philippine president says he wants all U.S. forces out of his country's south, where they have been advising local troops battling Muslim extremists.
Speaking before newly-appointed government officials Monday, Rodrigo Duterte blamed the U.S. for the restiveness of Muslim militants in the region, marking the first time he has publicly opposed the presence of American troops in the country.
Duterte did not set any deadline or say how the withdrawal would proceed, but said the Americans were high-value targets for the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf as counterinsurgency operations intensify.
“Those special forces, they have to go, they have to go... I do not want a rift with America, but they have to go...It will just get more tense. If they [Muslim militants] see Americans there, they will really kill them. They will try to get ransom, then kill them," he said.
The State Department characterized Duterte's comments as "unhelpful."
State Department spokesman John Kirby said, “We're not aware of any official communication by the Philippine government to that effect and to seek that result .... More critically, we are going to remain committed to our alliance commitments in the Philippines.”
Duterte's statement came a week after his televised tirade against the U.S. and President Barack Obama, causing Obama to cancel their scheduled bilateral meeting at a summit in Laos. The two, however, later met informally during the summit.
Duterte has had a tumultuous relationship with the U.S. since becoming president in June and openly criticized U.S. security policies. During his election campaign, Duterte said he would chart a foreign policy that would not depend on America, the Philippines’ treaty ally.
In 2002, the U.S. military deployed troops to train, advise and provide intelligence and weapons to Philippine troops battling the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants in the southern Philippines.
When U.S. forces withdrew in February 2015, U.S. officials said a smaller contingent of military advisers would stay.
Some material for this report came from AP, AFP and Reuters.