SOME 7,000 students in the Philippines returned to their university in conflict-ridden Marawi amid gun battles between government forces and Muslim militants entering its fourth month in the southern city.
According to the Straits Times, Mindanao State University (MSU) students returned to their campus at the south-west side of Marawi, as the institution re-opened its doors with over 300 soldiers guarding the vicinity on Tuesday.
And while the reopening of the university was a sign of a return to normalcy in the besieged city, a skirmish broke out in Marantao town, some 3km away from the campus several hours before classes began.
Joint Task Force Marawi spokesman Captain Jo-ann Petinglay was quoted as saying that the latest clash took place between 5.30am and 7am.
Another military spokesman, Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, earlier said the university was not within the range of stray bullets.
The highly organised Maute group – pro-Islamic State fighters who swept through Marawi City on May 23 – has held parts of it despite sustained ground attacks by hundreds of soldiers and daily pummelling by planes and artillery.
More than 700 people have been killed and 400,000 displaced in the battle to retake Marawi.
Backed by fighter jets, helicopter gunships and US surveillance planes, government security forces have managed to contain the fighting within a half-a-square kilometre area. While starting out the siege with more than 400 fighters, the militants’ numbers have dwindled to roughly 50 to 60 people.
The government said it was working to restore peace in the once-thriving commercial centre that still remained closed to civilians. Local authorities also said it may take another month before the fighting comes to an end.
Despite the ongoing battles with the remnants of the militant group, the military has encouraged those living in the periphery towns and villages of Marawi to return to their homes.
“We’re slowly opening the road to normalcy for many of the communities that are far from the main battle area, as we work to really solve the presence of the armed elements, the remnants of the Maute group inside,” Padilla said, as quoted by the Straits Times.
Additional reporting by Reuters