The Philippine government is taking the first steps to restore normalcy in Marawi, even as the army continues to battle dozens of Muslim militants still holed up in one pocket of the city for a fourth month.
Mindanao State University (MSU), in the city's south-west, reopened its gates yesterday to about 7,000 students, its perimeter tightly secured by over 300 soldiers. About 3,400 faculty and administrative staff have also returned.
But in a reminder that war is not far away, security forces manning a checkpoint battled about 20 militants in Marantao town 3km away from the university, just hours before classes were due to begin.
The fighting began at 5.30am and was over by 7am, according to Captain Jo-ann Petinglay, a spokesman for the Joint Task Force Marawi.
Buses ferrying students from outside Marawi resumed their trips after the firefight.
Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of Joint Task Force Ranao, said a militant was killed, while four soldiers suffered shrapnel wounds. "We think this is a diversionary tactic to take away attention from the main battle area. It's also possible that this is connected to the reopening of MSU because of its proximity," he said.
Colonel Edgard Arevalo, the military's public affairs chief, said the gunmen could also have been attempting to reinforce militants still fighting troops near the centre of Marawi. "They were on their way, and they were probably surprised to see that many soldiers manning the checkpoint," he said.
Military spokesman Restituto Padilla earlier gave the assurance that the MSU campus was well beyond the range of stray bullets from the main conflict area 3km away.
Number of students returning to class at Mindanao State University.
One of the biggest universities on southern Mindanao island, MSU shut its gates after some 1,000 militants seized large parts of Marawi on May 23 in an audacious bid to turn it into a "province" of the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They briefly occupied the campus before fleeing with hostages.
Backed by bombers, helicopter gunships, US surveillance planes and artillery, the army has since boxed the gunmen inside a 0.5 sq km area, and whittled their number to just 50 to 60. Some are believed to be hiding inside a mosque with their hostages, including a ranking Catholic priest.
The fighting has left 129 members of the security forces and 45 civilians dead. The military claims to have killed 583 militants.
The attack forced Marawi's entire population of over 200,000 to evacuate, and the ensuing battle levelled more than half the city, including its once-thriving commercial centre. Another 200,000 in towns and villages around the city have also been displaced.
Marawi itself is still closed to civilians, and it may take another month before the fighting can end, according to Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
But the military has been encouraging those living around Marawi and along Lake Lanao to return to their homes.
"We are 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," said Brigadier-General Padilla.
He said the military is using a "phased approach" to returning civilians to Marawi, with the reopening of MSU as a start.
Those returning home are being screened to confirm their identities, given safe-conduct passes and escorted back to their homes, he added.
Security forces, meanwhile, have been battling militants in other parts of Mindanao.
On Monday, Islamist gunmen killed nine people and injured 10 others as they attacked a town in their stronghold on Basilan island. They burned four houses and a daycare centre before retreating to their jungle hideouts.
Meanwhile, the Philippines' largest Muslim militant group has launched a deadly offensive in Maguindanao province against a splinter faction that has pledged allegiance to ISIS.