Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday that he wants U.S. special forces to leave his country’s Muslim insurgency-ridden South, taking his recent expressions of anti-Americanism another step further.
Addressing a swearing-in ceremony for new officials, Duterte said the Islamic militants’ deeming of Westerners as high-value targets made the region unsuitable for them to operate, Reuters reports.
“Americans, [the militants] will really kill them, they will try to kidnap them to get a ransom,” the 71-year-old President said. “I do not want a rift with America. But they have to go.”
U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. government had received no official demand from the Philippine government for the removal of its troops, which have been assisting the fight against the Islamic State–affiliated Abu Sayyaf group since 2002, but have recently dialed down their presence to a “handful” in liaison roles, an official told Reuters.
The Philippines is one of the key U.S. allies in Southeast Asia; an agreement signed under Duterte’s predecessor President Benigno Aquino III last year expanded the defense cooperation between the two countries.
Duterte, however, has made his disdain for the U.S. clear on multiple occasions, mostly over its opposition to his brutal war on drugs. Earlier this year, he called the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines a “son of a b-tch,” an insult he appeared to also direct toward President Barack Obama ahead of the recent ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos.
Duterte expressed “regret” for his “strong comments” that resulted in Obama canceling a planned meeting between the two leaders (although they did meet informally on the sidelines of the event) and later said the insult wasn’t directed at his American counterpart. However, Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying on Monday that he was the one who “skipped” the meeting with Obama.