Rody wants US troops out of Mindanao

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star

Soldiers warned of kidnapping by Sayyaf

MANILA, Philippines - After blasting the United States supposedly for interfering in his war on drugs, President Duterte yesterday said he wanted American troops out of Mindanao as he blamed Washington for the conflict and security threats in the south.

Duterte said US troops in Mindanao should leave as they are in danger of being kidnapped by the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.

“The Special Forces, they have to go. They have to go in Mindanao. There are many whites there,” the President said during the oath taking of new appointees yesterday at Malacañang.

“If they see an American, they would kill him.  They would demand ransom then kill him. Even if you’re a black or white American, as long as you are an American, (they will kill you),” he added.

Some US troops have been deployed in Zamboanga City to assist Philippine security forces in the campaign against terrorists. Since the Constitution prohibits foreign troops from engaging in direct combat operations, the US soldiers’ role is limited to assisting the local military through training and information sharing.

A ranking military official who declined to be named said less than 200 US soldiers have remained in Zamboanga City, and they were mainly involved in “technical assistance” to Filipino troops.

“The situation there (in Mindanao) will worsen. If they (Americans) are seen there, they will be killed,” Duterte said.

The President said it was a message he could not deliver during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Laos last week, mainly out of respect for US President Barack Obama who was at the summit.

“I could not speak then out of respect and I do not want a rift with America. But they have to go,” the President said.

Under Duterte, the Philippines has had an uncomfortable relationship with the US, its treaty partner and longtime ally. The Philippine president has scored the American government for lecturing him about human rights despite its own record of atrocities committed by its soldiers during the Philippine-American War in 1898.

The US has expressed deep concerns over rising deaths of suspected drug offenders in Duterte’s war on illegal drugs. Human rights advocates said Duterte’s tough approach to fighting drugs has encouraged summary executions and targeted only the poor. Nearly 3,000 suspected drug offenders have been killed since Duterte assumed office in June, almost half of them by suspected vigilante groups.

Duterte has lashed back at the US by citing its supposed failure to stop the killing of African Americans by policemen and by accusing it of “exporting terrorism” in the Middle East.

The President continued with his tirades against the US yesterday as he blamed Washington for the violence in Iraq and Libya. He also showed photos of the Bud Dajo massacre, where US forces massacred more than a thousand Muslim fighters and civilians holed up in a mountain fortress during the Filipino-American war.

The photo showed American soldiers posing among piles of dead Muslims including naked women. The massacre happened in Jolo in 1906. “The US is a hypocrite,” Duterte said.

He had also shown photos of the Bud Dajo massacre at the East Asian Summit in Laos.

“Look at the bodies there... For as long as we stay with America, we will never have peace in that land. We might as well give it up,” Duterte said.

“See the soldiers stepping on a woman’s bare breast… They even made a postcard out of it,” he added.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Duterte’s statement reflects the President’s ?“new direction towards coursing an independent foreign policy.” 

“He (Duterte) has made reference to the unrecognized, unrepented and unatoned for massacre at Bud Dajo in Sulu by the Americans, hence our continued connection with West is the real reason for the ‘Islamic’ threat in Mindanao,” Abella said in a statement.

“The American silence on the matter lacks congruence with its  ‘moral’ position, in the light of actions taken in the past by the Germans who confessed and made atonement for the Holocaust, and Japan which made reparations for the atrocities it perpetrated among the peoples they conquered,” he added. 

Abella said Duterte is on “morally firm ground” by “breaking up walls that cover dark corners” in the bilateral ties between the Philippines and the US.

Duterte has vowed to pursue an independent foreign policy and has repeatedly stressed that he is not beholden to anyone but the Filipino people. 

Rock solid

Despite Duterte’s latest innuendo against the US, the Philippines’ relationship with the mightiest nation remains “rock solid,” according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

“It’s strong,” Lorenzana said. “The US is truly a military ally because of our mutual defense treaty which was signed in the 195os and is still there,” he said, referring to the Mutual Defense Treaty.

“It’s not abrogated. What the President said was we’re going to talk with others who could give us good equipment to strengthen our defense and we will do that, but we are going to still have our treaty alliance with the United States,” he added.

In fact, Lorenzana said he had a scheduled meeting with the US officials led by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter by the end of September in Honolulu to discuss security issues.

He said ASEAN defense ministers would also discuss security issues in the South China Sea as well as terrorism among other issues.

President Obama called off a planned meeting last week with President Duterte on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, after the latter spewed out expletives at US officials whom he accused of interfering in Philippine affairs.

“Clearly, he’s a colorful guy,” Obama said on being told of Duterte’s unsavory statements. “What I’ve instructed my team to do is talk to their Philippine counterparts to find out is this in fact a time where we can have some constructive, productive conversations.”

Meanwhile, military officials – especially those in the Western Mindanao Command – declined to comment on the President’s position against the presence of US troops in the region.

“It is beyond our level and any statement relative to that pronouncement of our Commander-in-Chief will be from the higher headquarters,” a military official who declined to be named said.

The military official said there are still US military personnel operating in Zamboanga City under the status of foreign liaison elements at the Westmincom.

US military forces used to operate under the US Special Operation Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) with troops deployed on rotation basis since 2002.  It terminated its operations after 10 years and left its camp inside Westmincom only with liaison personnel.

The deployment then of US military forces was upon the invitation of the Philippine government to assist and advise their Filipino counterpart in the campaign against terrorism particularly by the Abu Sayyaf group.

Meanwhile, local officials in Basilan and Sulu said they were saddened by Duterte’s pronouncement against the US military.  They said US soldiers have been active in humanitarian projects in the region.

“We have reservations on the pronouncement of the President as we all know the assistance provided by the US troops in ensuring the security and peace and order in the city,” acting Mayor Cesar Ituralde said. He said they hope the President would reconsider his pronouncement.

“But we will highly respect the President as we are very much supportive of his plans and programs in this matter,” he added. – Cecille Suerte Felipe, Roel Pareño

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