MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine military on Tuesday, September 13, said it will await “any specific directive” arising from the statement of President Rodrigo Duterte that he wanted US soldiers out of Mindanao.
In the meantime, the military takes the President’s statement to mean that he was just concerned about the safety of US soldiers in Mindanao and that they “should be eased from harm’s way,” Colonel Edgard Arevalo, chief of the military’s public affairs office, said in a statement.
“We take due notice of the pronouncement of the Commander-in-Chief President Rodrigo Duterte expressing his concern for the safety of US servicemen in Mindanao,” Arevalo said. “Pursuant to the same statement, he desires that our American counterparts should be eased from harm’s way.”
On Monday, September 12, Duterte said in a speech that he wants the US Special Forces out of Mindanao. “Kaya ‘yang mga special forces (Those special forces), they have to go. They have to go. In Mindanao, maraming mga puti doon (there are a lot of white people there),” Duterte said during a speech in front of new appointees on Monday at Malacañang.
He said their presence in Mindanao would make them more vulnerable to attacks from the Abu Sayyaf. “It will get more tense. If they see an American, they will really be killed. They will demand ransom, they will kill them. Even if you’re black or white, as long as you’re American,” he said in Filipino.
No change in policy
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr, who left for Washington Tuesday, clarified that Duterte’s statements did not indicate any shift in government policy toward the US. (READ: No shift in PH policy on US)
When he spoke about US soldiers, the President was referring to “only a token number of American servicemen who are confined mainly in Zamboanga City,” Arevalo said.
“They provide technical assistance and training to their Filipino counterparts in combatting terrorism in the Philippines. The number has dwindled following the deactivation and pullout of JSOTF-P (Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines) several years ago,” he added.
Arevalo said that as of Monday, the military has not received “any specific directive” to implement Duterte’s “pronouncement.” He said this is now being discussed by the defense and foreign affairs departments.
Select US military personnel assist combat and intelligence units in Western Mindanao as part of the long-term partnership between the two allies. US military presence in the region has downgraded from the time of the Arroyo government, when they formed a task force of about 600 American servicemen stationed at the JSTOFP headquarters in Zamboanga City.
In June 2014, the US government decided to disband the task force, reducing the number of US troops in Mindanao to 200.
The cutback came after Manila signed a new defense agreement with Washington in April that year, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows American forces greater access to bases here. President Duterte has said he will honor EDCA.
Various military sources told Rappler there are close to a hundred US military soldiers still in Western Mindanao at any given time. This is aside from hundreds of US troops who come in and out throughout the year to join the regular Balikatan exercises with the Philippine military. – Rappler.com
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