Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday called for the withdrawal of U.S. military from a restive southern island, fearing an American troop presence could complicate offensives against Islamist militants notorious for beheading Westerners.
Duterte, who was in the spotlight last week over his televised tirade against the United States and President Barack Obama, said special forces now training Filipino troops were high-value targets for the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf as counter-insurgency operations intensify.
“These special forces, they have to go,” Duterte said in a speech during an oath-taking ceremony for new officials.
“I do not want a rift with America. But they have to go.”
He added: “Americans, they will really kill them, they will try to kidnap them to get ransom.”
The comment by Duterte, a former southern mayor known for his terse words and volatile temperament, adds to uncertainty about what impact his rise to the presidency will have on one of Washington’s best alliances in Asia.
Duterte wants an independent foreign policy and says close ties with the United States are crucial, but he has frequently accused the former colonial power of hypocrisy when criticized for his deadly drugs war. He denied on Friday calling Obama a “son of a bitch”.
Some U.S. special forces have been killed in the southern Philippines since 2002, when Washington deployed soldiers to train and advise local units fighting Abu Sayyaf in Operation Enduring Freedom, part of its global anti-terror strategy.
At the height of that, some 1,200 Americans were in Zamboanga City and on Jolo and Basilan islands, both strongholds of Abu Sayyaf, which is known for its brutality and for earning huge sums of money from hostage-taking.
The U.S. program was discontinued in the Philippines in 2015 but a small troop presence has remained for logistics and technical support. Washington has shifted much of its security focus in the Philippines towards the South China Sea.
In his speech to officials on Monday, Duterte repeated comments from last week when he accused the United States of committing atrocities against Muslims over a century ago on Jolo island.
US-Philippines relationships are currently at a low point as Washington has condemned alleged extrajuridical killings of people suspected of being involved with drug-related activities in the Philippines.