MANILA — Fighting intensified in the embattled southern Philippine city of Zamboanga on Saturday as hopes for a quick cease-fire with Muslim rebels evaporated amid some of the most serious violence to strike the region in years.
The six-day standoff with the rebels in one of the most vibrant trading cities in the southern Philippines is believed to have left at least 55 people dead. It has also raised fears of a setback in the government’s efforts, backed by the United States, to calm insurgencies and fight terrorism.
The government says most of the dead are rebels fighting government troops. The forces are firing mortars and battling street by street to take back several seaside neighborhoods from the militants.
The situation is serious enough that the country’s top civilian and military leaders have traveled to the city, despite the chaos, to plan their strategy. President Benigno S. Aquino III arrived Friday, with an escort helicopter taking small-arms fire as he landed, to coordinate the government’s response.
The crisis has crippled the once peaceful city, a mostly Christian enclave on Mindanao island in the mostly Muslim south, displacing more than 62,000 people.
The standoff with rebels has raised fears of a setback in the government’s efforts to calm insurgencies and fight terrorism.
There are conflicting reports about how the standoff began Monday morning. The police say several hundred armed men from the Moro National Liberation Front landed by boat in Zamboanga and tried to raise their flag over City Hall and declare independence from the national government.
When police officers and the military tried to stop them, the police said, the insurgents took hostages and retreated to the city’s Muslim slums.
Rebel leaders have said that their march to City Hall was peaceful, and that they were attacked by the military.
Since then, government officials say they have worked hard to evacuate civilians in the area, but it remains unclear how many hostages are being held.
Hopes for a cease-fire briefly emerged Saturday when the vice president — a political rival of Aquino’s — announced an informal truce with the rebels. But the fighting never let up, and the president’s aides have since said that the administration will coordinate the military actions and any efforts to engage the rebels in talks.
The violence comes less than a year after Aquino achieved relative peace in the region by winning a deal with a much larger rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The various insurgencies are driven in part by the belief that Muslims have been left out of the nation’s economy.