Scuba diving terrorists? Troops guard Marawi lake vs reinforcements

MARAWI CITY, Philippines – The military said it received reports that the sympathizers of the Maute Group from neighboring towns are trying to procure scuba gears, presumably to enter the battle area in Marawi City in Lanao del Sur.

"We received some reports that there were efforts to procure or produce scuba equipment by the Maute but so far we have not caught or seen cases of Maute coming into the battle area using this equipment," said Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of Task Group Ranao, during a press briefing on Friday, September 8.

Brawner said they received the report two weeks ago from nearby municipalities. 

It is an attempt that is likely bound to fail, but indicates the determination of the Maute Group to hold their ground in the battle area. 

Zia Alonto Adiong, the spokesman of the local government, said the terrorists will find that it's not easy to do scuba diving in Lake Lanao.

"There have been several attempts. Even the National Geographic pumunta dito para kunin ang mga isda na endemic sa lake (came over to get fish that's endemic to the lake). They weren't able to go down deep enough," said Adiong, reacting to the military's revelation.

"I dont know how they can manage to sneak out using scuba equipment. There is a big difference when you do scuba diving on salt water compared to fresh water. I am not discounting the possibility, but it is quite hard," said Adiong. 

Task Group Lawa is responsible for guarding Lake Lanao, composed of units from the navy, maritime police, and the army. Brawner said they are working to prevent reinforcements "whether it is on the surface or subsurface."

"We cannot be 100% sure but as far as we know we have been able to prevent the entry of possible reinforcements and the entry of supplies. If you look at the operations for the past weeks, we have been able to prevent the entry of boats and neutralize some of the elements that attempted to come in," said Brawner. 

MILF helping the military

The military said the threat of more armed men entering the battle area to reinforce the dwindling number of terrorists fighting the military is a real concern. 

Last week, the military reported intercepting two boats carrying armed men moving toward the battle area. Ten were killed.

The incident came after the military tagged suspected Maute Group sympathizers as being behind the clashes in the neighboring town of Marantao two weeks ago, an incident that prompted concerns especially because the town is adjacent to Mindanao State Unviersity that has already reopened.

Muslim rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has come to the aid of the military, committing to guard parts of its stronghold Maguindanao that are bordering Lanao del Sur.

Captain Jo-ann Petinglay, spokesman of Joint Task Force Marawi, said the rebel group talking peace with the government is also providing intelligence information to the military.

"They have been very successful in their previous operations and members of the MILF have died because of the recent clashes. It is a welcome development. They are helping us address the problem against terrorism," said Petinglay.

'Relatives want to help Mautes'

The military said there are at least two groups of fighters who want to enter the battle area. 

There are fighters who are enticed with monetary rewards offered by the Maute Group.

"Some are being paid for their boats so that they could bring in reinforcements through the lake. All these reports we received have been confirmed to be true. The Maute terrorist group is using monetary compensation to recruit people, and buy services as well as supplies," said Brawner.

There are also fighters who are related by blood to the Maute fighers who want to help their loved ones.

"We have monitored that some of those who want to enter the battle area are relatives of the Maute. Probably the relatives of the Maute members inside are asking for their help," said Petinglay.

The battle area is now confined to about 20 hectares and the military is aiming to end the war "before October."

Up to 145 government forces, 45 civilians, and over 600 terrrists were reported killed in the war that displaced about 600,000 residents of Marawi and neighboring towns. – Rappler.com