MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine government on Tuesday summoned the U.S. charge d'affaires and handed him a diplomatic protest over his remarks that the restive south, home to Muslim rebels and Al Qaeda-linked (search) militants, risks turning into "an Afghanistan (search) situation."
But Joseph Mussomeli (search) was adamant he said nothing offensive, telling reporters before his meeting at the Department of Foreign Affairs that there is "absolutely nothing to apologize for."
"There's not a single criticism of the Philippine government or the Philippine people in the entire transcript" of last week's interview with Australia's SBS television, he said.
A Foreign Affairs statement quoted Assistant Foreign Secretary Ariel Abadilla as telling Mussomeli that some of his comments were "grossly inaccurate, patently unfair and prejudicial and counterproductive to the overall efforts of the Philippine government to fight terrorism and to bring peace and development to Mindanao."
Abadilla said the comments undermine cooperation with Washington, negates the headway achieved in the Philippines' peace and development programs and "are not to be expected from a representative of a close and friendly government and strategic ally."
Emerging with diplomatic note in hand after a half-hour, Musommeli said the Philippine government was within its rights to express its views and that he and Abadilla had a "healthy, candid exchange of views."
In the interview, Mussomeli lamented a lack of focus on the terrorist threat in the southern Mindanao region, where Philippine authorities have made several high-profile arrests of Indonesian suspects from the Jemaah Islamiyah regional terror group and its local collaborators.
He said, according to the transcript posted on the embassy Web site: "Certain portions of Mindanao are so lawless, so porous the borders, that you run the risk of it becoming like an Afghanistan situation."
U.S. officials have long worried that unrest in the Philippines' impoverished Muslim homeland could be exploited by terror groups.
But the comments provoked an angry reaction from Philippine officials and congressmen, some of whom called for Mussomeli's expulsion.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said Monday that "such negative hyperbole to describe the Mindanao situation is out of tune with what is happening on the ground," and that the government was "making gains against terrorists and poverty every single day and week that passes."
On Tuesday, Arroyo cited a recent speech by U.S. President George W. Bush in which he praised the Philippines' battle against terrorism.
"Even President Bush, who is a leader in the war against terror, is satisfied. (But) there are many things we still have to do," she said.