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Painful homecoming in battle-torn Philippine city

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A resident stands amid the rubble of her destroyed home. " AFP / TED ALJIBE

MARAWI (AFP) – After fleeing for their lives nearly a year ago, residents of the battle-scarred Philippine city of Marawi were allowed back yesterday for the first time – to dig through the rubble that was once their homes.

Swathes of the southern city were destroyed in five months of house-to-house fighting between troops and jihadists loyal to the Islamic State group that killed nearly 1,200.

Tearful residents dug charred furniture and broken toys from the ruins, which still conceals unexploded bombs dropped during the battles that broke out in May 2017.

Marawi on Mindanao island, the principal Islamic city in the mainly Catholic Philippines, was besieged by hundreds of local and foreign gunmen waving black IS flags who attacked it in what authorities said was an attempt to establish a Southeast Asian base.

Over the course of the next month groups of residents will be allowed to return for up to three days each, to view their old homes and salvage what they can before rebuilding starts.

Yesterday, some 7,000 people walked forlornly through streets littered with rubble, twisted metal and the skeletons of bullet-riddled cars.

The battle, which ended in October, was the biggest security crisis under firebrand President Rodrigo Duterte.

The fighting caused destruction similar to Aleppo and Mosul, military and local officials say.

Many of the city’s 200,000 residents fled their homes in a rush for safety. They have since been living in evacuation centers or with relatives in other towns.

The conflict zone has 53 unexploded bombs from military airstrikes weighing as much as 226 kilograms as well as explosives left behind by the militants, according to Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the military task force in Marawi.

“We lack the equipment to excavate the bombs. One bomb we recovered, for example, took us five days because we had to dig 10 meters deep and 10 meters wide,” Mr Brawner said, adding the military aimed to finish the effort by June.

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