AT LEAST 36 people died after a gunman burst into a Manila casino, firing shots and setting gaming tables alight, a spokesman for the Philippine president said on Friday, in what officials believe was a botched robbery attempt.
There was no evidence linking the attack at the Resorts World Manila entertainment complex to fighting between government troops and Islamist militants in the country’s south, said Ernesto Abella, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte.
“All indications point to a criminal act by an apparently emotionally disturbed individual,” Abella told a media conference. “Although the perpetrator gave warning shots, there apparently was no indication that he wanted to do harm or shoot anyone.”
Most of the dead suffocated in the chaos as guests and staff tried to flee choking smoke at the complex after the drama that began shortly after midnight (1600 GMT).
Oscar Albayalde, chief of the capital’s police office, said those that died were in the casino’s main gaming area.
“What caused their deaths is the thick smoke,” he told reporters. “The room was carpeted and of course the tables, highly combustible.”
A Resorts World Manila official said the dead included 13 employees and 22 guests.
Around dawn, the body of the suspected gunman was found in a hotel room in the complex, which is close to Ninoy Aquino International Airport and an air force base, police said.
“He burned himself inside the hotel room 510,” national police chief Ronald dela Rosa told a media conference. “He lay down on the bed, covered himself in a thick blanket and apparently doused himself in gasoline.”
The bodies of two of the victims had been taken to the Veronica funeral parlour, staff member Leni Domingo told Reuters.
Resort owner Travellers International Hotel Group Inc , a joint venture of the Philippines’ Alliance Global Group Inc and Genting Hong Kong Ltd, said authorities were still seeking details.
“We have been informed of several casualties, the number and identities of whom have yet to be determined,” it said in a statement. Its shares were down 7 percent.
Officials said at least 54 people were hurt, some seriously, as they rushed to escape what at first had been feared as a militant attack.
“Don’t panic, this is not a cause for alarm. We cannot attribute this to terrorism,” national police chief dela Rosa told DZMM radio.
“We are looking into a robbery angle because he did not hurt any people and went straight to the casino chips storage room. He parked at the second floor and barged into the casino, shooting large TV screens and poured gasoline on a table setting it on fire,” he said.
Police said the gunman was tall with a pale complexion and spoke English.
Kimberly Molitas, a spokeswoman for the capital’s police office, said PHP113 million (US$2.27 million) worth of casino chips stolen during the raid had been recovered.
Videos posted earlier on social media showed people fleeing as several loud bangs were heard.
“Even the security personnel panicked. Maybe because of the heavy firearm, they can’t put up a fight so they prioritised life and safety,” Jeff Santos, a high roller at Resorts World Manila, told a Philippine radio station. “Definitely us patrons we did not expect that, everyone ran away.”
Jeri Ann Santiago, who works in the emergency room at the San Juan de Dios hospital, said patients were suffering the effects of smoke inhalation and some had injuries such as fractures. None had gunshot wounds, she said.
The Philippines has been on heightened alert amid a crisis in the south of the country, where troops have been battling Islamist rebels since May 23.
Duterte declared martial law on the southern island of Mindanao last week and has warned it could become a haven for supporters fleeing Iraq and Syria.
Earlier, US President Donald Trump said Washington was closely monitoring what he described as a “terrorist” attack unfolding in Manila.
Dozens of police trucks and several huge Special Action Force vans and armoured personnel carriers lined side streets near the hotel, casino and shopping mall complex as the drama unfolded.
Gil Yonco, 54, stood weeping in the street at around 5 a.m. His daughter had been on the second floor inside Resorts World and called her father for help because she was being suffocated by smoke.
He tried calling back but there was no answer. “I am very worried as a parent, I need to find her,” he said.
Relatives of victims gathered later in a parking area could be heard crying.
A South Korean foreign ministry official said one South Korean died at the casino after the unidentified person was evacuated. The official said the person likely suffered a heart attack but an autopsy would be carried out to determine the cause of death.
Three South Koreans suffered minor injuries from smoke inhalation or during the evacuation, the official said.
A casino worker named Julio from the third floor of the complex told DZMM radio he heard many gunshots and saw people running up the stairs from the second floor.
One man, who declined to give his name, told reporters how he and others used curtains to clamber down from the second floor.
Maintenance worker Ronald Romualdo told DZMM he saw a woman fall from an upper floor while trying to escape. “Several people were injured,” he said. – Reuters