U.S. troops not high-value targets — DND

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(File photo)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana refuted a recent statement by President Rodrigo Duterte that U.S. troops in Mindanao risk getting kidnapped and killed by terrorist or criminal groups.

In a budget hearing at the House of Representatives, Lorenzana said American soldiers are perfectly capable of protecting themselves.

"'Yung (The) fears ni Presidente na (of the President that) they might be subject to reprisals by the Muslim is a little bit... hindi siguro mangyayare dahil nasa kampo lang sila (it might not happen because they are just in the camps)," Lorenzana said as he led the presentation of the proposed 2017 budget of the Department of National Defense (DND).

There are still 107 U.S. soldiers in Mindanao, all in Zamboanga City.

Lorenzana said they stay inside the military camp in the city, and are typically accompanied by Filipino troops when they go out of the facility.

Also read: Lawmakers urge caution on calls to pullout U.S. troops in Mindanao

Lorenzana added they are usually well-armed.

"Let us remember that these people are also combatants, hindi sila (they are not) civilians that are subject to kidnapping by the terrorists," Lorenzana said.

They are deployed in Zamboanga mainly to secure U.S. equipment used to help Filipino soldiers with intelligence gathering and surveillance.

"The bulk of their job is to manage their assets diyan sa (there in) Zamboanga City. They have two systems providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaisance to our troops in Mindanao," Lorenzana told lawmakers.

Analysts: Duterte's harsh U.S. rhetoric may hurt alliance

Duterte had called for the pullout of American soldiers in Mindanao, saying their presence there could only worsen the conflict in the region.

He also said they may be subject to reprisals by the Moros considering the history of American atrocities on the island during the U.S. occupation.

But Lorenzana clarified Duterte's statement is not a directive.

He clarified the President was just warning the Americans.

Some American troops have apparently reached out to Lorenzana, asking him if they should start packing up.

The defense chief said he answered by saying, "No, he's just warning you."

The department is proposing a budget of P178.2 billion for 2017, 7% higher than its allocation this year.