08/31/2017, 17.27
PHILIPPINES
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The final battle for Marawi gets underway, St Mary’s Cathedral is recaptured (video)

The church was desecrated and set on fire at the start of the conflict. A provisional cathedral has been consecrated in Baloi. The last Islamist holdout is on the shores of Lake Lanao. Soldiers take back the Grand Mosque. So far 800 people have died, including 133 soldiers and policemen, 617 terrorists and 45 civilians. About 50 people are still held hostage. The government promises proper reconstruction. Residents are still caught between hopes and fears for the future.

Marawi (AsiaNews) – The Philippines Armed Forces (AFP) are gearing up for an assault against the last stronghold held by armed men connected to the Islamic State in Marawi, capital of Lanao del Sur province (Mindanao), the Filipino city with the highest concentration of Muslims. The military plan to end the violent clashes comes as the crisis marked its hundredth day, yesterday.

The crisis began on 23 May when terrorists seized part of the city to set up an enclave for the Islamic State in Southeast Asia. So far, some 800 people have been killed, including 133 soldiers and policemen, 617 terrorists and 45 civilians.

The terrorists are still holding some hostages, including Fr Teresito “Chito" Suganob, vicar general in Marawi. The clergyman, who had a chance to escape, chose to remain with the other prisoners.

In the last few days, the military stepped up airstrikes on the rebel-held ​​500 square metre area to soften up the resistance of some 200 Islamist Maute and Abu Sayyaf militants still holding out.

Troops are about 500 metres from the lakeside where the terrorists fled after losing the strategic Mapandi bridge.

Now that the bridge and all other routes to their last stronghold are cut off, the terrorists are running low on food, water, medicine and ammunition.

As they moved forward, soldiers took Marawi’s Grand Mosque, and on Monday evening, they captured St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, in Marinaut. A video released by the military on Tuesday shows destruction inside the building (for the video click here).

The church had been taken last Friday but it had to be cleared of improvised explosive devices left by the Maute before they fled.

The building was one of the first places the terrorists attacked at the start of their operation. During their occupation, they desecrated it before setting it on fire. Mindanao Muslim leaders harshly condemned the act.

Mgr Edwin de la Peña, bishop of Marawi, said that the territorial prelature can now think about the future. Yesterday, he consecrated a provisional cathedral in Baloi (about 20 km north of Marawi).

During the offensive, the Maute took Fr Chito along with the Church workers and a dozen faithful.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Mindanao’s main autonomist group, called for his release.

In late June, the terrorists said they were willing to release the priest if the authorities released the parents and relatives of their leader, Abdullah Maute. However, the government never opened talks.

Sources in Mindanao told AsiaNews that last week four hostages were able to escape, swimming across the lake. They explained that they were held along with Fr Chito. He refused to follow them, choosing instead to remain with the other hostages.

The escapees said that the terrorists use hostages as human shields, forcing them to wear their clothes to confuse the soldiers. The prisoners are also used to gather gunpowder and prepare home-made bombs.

As Marawi's siege appears near its end, the government has promised to carry out effective reconstruction. Meanwhile, locals are trying to get their life back to normal.

Still, the city’s future remains uncertain. Most land belongs to the state, and real estate speculation is a real danger in a place where many illegally built homes have been destroyed. Sources told AsiaNews that it is not yet clear how the government intends to deal with the problem.

There are also fears about what will happen after the fighting is over. Many Maranao, a local Muslim ethnic group, have vowed vengeance against those who have supported and sided with the Islamist groups that brought death and destruction to the city. Honour feuding, known locally as rido (maratabat) is part of the area’s culture.

For tis part, the Catholic Church continues to help evacuees through numerous initiatives and projects.

AsiaNews spoke by phone with Fr Edwin A. Gariguez, executive secretary of the National Social Action Secretariat (NASSA) and Caritas Philippines, the main charity of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

The clergyman said that yesterday about a hundred residents marked the 100th day since the violence broke out by walking through the city, a symbol of hope for the future.

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