Armed men in Lanao town spark fear of conflict spillover

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Marawi City (CNN Philippines, September 23) — Around 20 armed men were spotted in Bayang, a quiet town in Lanao del Sur around 50 kilometers south of terror-stricken Marawi City, the military and local government said Saturday.

The black-clad men sparked tension among residents of the lakeside town on Wednesday and Saturday morning, Bayang Mayor Aslani Balt said.

"May lumusob na mga unidentified let's say black group doon sa upper portion ng bayan ko. Ang inaano nila, ang kampo ng military," Balt said.

(Translation: "An unidentified, let's say black group attacked an upper portion of my town. They were targeting the military camp.")

"Nalaman nila na may lumusob, so ano din ang mga tao, we cannot blame them. Pero sabi ko, in case na may mangyari, dito na kayo sa munisipyo ko," he added.

(Translation: "The residents knew about this (and panicked), we cannot blame them. But I said, in case something happens, come to the municipal hall." )

The military confirmed the report, saying the still unknown group may be doing it to harass the community.

There was an exchange of gunfire which lasted for a minute on Wednesday, the military said.

"One minute lang yung nangyaring exchange of fire so tumakbo agad yung nang-harass (The exchange of fire lasted for only one minute, those who were trying to harass immediately ran away)," Joint Task Force Marawi Deputy Commander Col. Romeo Brawner said.

The military said they are not taking the incident lightly. Authorities are now verifying if the incident is related to the war in Marawi - and if the armed men are affiliated with the ISIS-linked Maute terror group.

"So far nakikita po natin na parang nuisance group lang ito. Maybe ang gusto lang nila mangyari ay magkaroon ng diversion (So far we see them as a nuisance group. Maybe all they want is to create diversion). That's a possibility," Brawner said.

The local government and the military have alerted barangay peacekeeping patrols, the police, and troops to secure the town.

The military said they are prepared for any possible spillover of the terror crisis in Marawi to other parts of Mindanao, especially because fighting is expected to intensify as it nears its end.

A total of 689 members of the ISIS-linked Maute group, 151 troops, and 47 civilians have been killed in Marawi since May 23, when clashes between soldiers and terrorists began, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law throughout Mindanao.