Official assures safety of US soldiers in Mindanao

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MANILA: American soldiers assigned to restive Mindanao are “safe” from kidnapping from terror groups like the Abu Sayyaf contrary to fears by President Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte, a top government official assured on Wednesday.

Secretary Delfin Lorenzana of the Department of National Defence (DND) explained that the American servicemen stayed in a camp in Zamboanga City and could not go out without being accompanied by their Filipino counterparts.

“The president’s fears that they (US soldiers) could be subject to reprisals by extremists is a little bit (far-fetched) because they don’t go out of their camp,” Lorenzana told the House Committee on Appropriations in a mixture of Filipino and English.

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Lorenzana, who testified before the committee to defend the $35 billion budget proposed for the DND for 2017, was referring to a Duterte statement for the withdrawal of the US forces in Mindanao because he feared for their safety.

“Let us remember,” Lorenzana pointed out, “that they are combatants, not civilians who are subject to kidnapping by terrorists.”

He revealed that the number of US servicemen assigned to Mindanao has dropped to only 107 from the 600 about 10 years ago, and are assigned to Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City.

It was also Lorenzana who described relations between the Philippines and the US as “rock solid” following the uproar that greeted Duterte’s statement that was considered as “anti-American.”

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But Duterte himself said on Tuesday that his statement was an attack on the US, reiterating that he was concerned only about the safety of the US servicemen particularly kidnapping by the Abu Sayyaf.

Other Duterte aides led by Secretary Perfecto Yasay of the Department of Foreign Affairs assured the Philippines was determined to honour all treaty obligations particularly with the US.

Secretary Ernesto Abella, the presidential spokesman, also said the Duterte pronouncement did not represent a “policy statement” that could signal a shift in its relations with the US.

The Philippines and the US have signed two accords — the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement — that allow the “rotational” presence of American warships, warplanes and soldiers in the Philippines to participate, among others, in the annual “war games” between their military forces.

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