Evacuation centre in Marawi, southern Philippines, June 2017

More than three months after it first attacked the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines, the Maute terrorist group is on the run, while still apparently holding 46 hostages, including Catholic priest Teresito “Chito” Suganob and 13 children.

Almost half a million Marawi residents are displaced as a result of fighting that destroyed 40% of the city, writes Catholic news agency UCAN.

The government says it will need at least US$300 million to rebuild; it says it has already spent more than US$60 million trying to retake Marawi from the Islamic State-inspired militants.

On Friday 25 August the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) took control of St Mary’s Cathedral in Marawi city, almost exactly three months after the Maute group broke into it on 23 May and took the priest and other church members hostage. According to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, the AFP cleared the church of improvised explosive devices left by the militants. Footage of the cathedral, released by the AFP, apparently shows the bullet-ridden walls and fragments of destroyed icons and other church items scattered on the floor, as well as a largely demolished altar.

The army also cleared the Grand Mosque in the city centre, which was used as a hide-out by the militants as well. Following the reopening of the mosque, Zia Alonto Adiong of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao told the Philippine Star that the return of the first ever Jumaah worship rite since May 23 “inspired them more to continue working for the restoration of normalcy in Marawi City”.

Adiong said the fact that Christian police and soldiers helped clean the site and then secured its surroundings during the prayer showed “the conflict here is not a conflict among Muslims and Christians. It is these two groups that are working together to restore law and order in Marawi City”.

Violation of rights

The national Inquirer newspaper reported earlier this month that Father Suganob was still alive. Hostages who escaped saw the priest being forced to gather gunpowder from firecrackers which the militants would use to make bombs. Father Suganob decided not to escape because he did not want to leave the other captives behind, said one of the escapees, Rumar Marjalino, who said the Maute group still holds 20 women, mostly teachers, 13 children as young as two, and 13 men, including the priest.

In protest at the government’s handling of the ongoing crisis, Marawi’s residents are calling for “self-determination” in the restoration of Marawi and plan to bring their stories of displacement and violation of rights under martial law to the capital, Manila, this week.

According to UCAN, Marawi’s residents want the UN Development Program and international experts on transitional justice to help assess the damages incurred by civilians. However, UCAN says it is likely the government will oppose this idea, as President Rodrigo Duterte and senior aides have “rejected aid that come with conditions, especially respect for human rights”.