The Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, has called for the withdrawal of US special forces from islands in the southern Philippines, saying their presence could complicate offensives against Islamist militants.
Duterte said the Americans still in Mindanao were high-value targets for the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf militants as counter-insurgency operations intensified.
“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.
“Americans, they [the militants] will really kill them, they will try to kidnap them to get ransom.”
The comments added to uncertainty about what impact Duterte’s rise to the presidency this year will have on one of Washington’s most important alliances in Asia.
Barack Obama cancelled a planned meeting with Duterte at last week’s Asean summit after Duterte appeared to call him a “son of a bitch”. The two did eventually meet briefly and on Friday Duterte said he told Obama the remark was not directed against him.
A spokesman for the US state department, John Kirby, said it was not aware of any official communication by Manila calling for a withdrawal. He said Washington remained committed to the alliance.
Another US official said there were only a “handful” of special forces in the Mindanao acting in limited liaison roles.
Washington deployed special forces soldiers to Mindanao in 2002 to train and advise Philippine units fighting Abu Sayyaf militants in a programme that once involved 1,200 Americans.
It was discontinued in 2015 but a small presence has remained for logistics and technical support.
Washington has since shifted much of its security focus in the Philippines towards the South China Sea, where the two countries have shared concerns about China’s territorial claims.
Commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday that it would “consult closely with our Filipino partners to appropriately tailor our assistance to whatever approach the new administration adopts” on counter-terrorism measures.