Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Friday warned that the government would use force to end the five-day siege of the southern port city of Zamboanga City if Muslim rebels harm their hostages or cause more destruction.

“The preservation of life is the paramount mission,” Mr. Aquino said after visiting displaced residents and meeting with military commanders in the city, 875 kilometres south of Manila.

“But if the threat to the innocents increases, we will be obliged to use the full force of the law,” he added.

Guerrillas belonging to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are holding an estimated 100 hostages and using them as human shields against the military, according to local authorities.

More than 14,000 residents were displaced as the guerrillas took over six neighbourhoods and set fire to some residential areas as sporadic clashes with the military broke out.

Fighting also erupted in nearby Basilan province, where MNLF fighters backed by Islamic extremists attacked military outposts, the military said.

Twenty-two people have been killed, including 15 MNLF fighters, since the hostilities erupted on Monday, said Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, a military spokesman. More than 50 were wounded, he added.

“Troops are containing the armed elements within the six areas they are occupying but we are not conducting any offensive actions,” Mr. Zagala added, noting that a local crisis committee was trying to open negotiations for the release of the hostages.

The fighting erupted when around 200 armed MNLF rebels gathered for a protest march in the centre of the bustling port city of more than 800,000 people to denounce the government’s alleged failure to implement a 1996 peace agreement.

The Philippine government is currently finalizing details of a preliminary peace deal to create a new autonomous Muslim region by 2016. The deal was signed in October with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which broke off from the MNLF in 1978.

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