After deadly rampage in Manila casino, authorities struggle for answers
BEIJING — Philippine authorities scrambled Friday to explain a deadly and bizarre chain of events they claimed began as a casino robbery and ended as a gaming floor inferno that left at least 36 people dead from smoke inhalation.
The chaotic scene in the Philippine capital was first feared to be a terrorist attack, perhaps related to ongoing fighting between the army and Islamist militants. In Washington, President Trump said he was monitoring “the terrorist attack in Manila.”
But Philippine authorities insisted there was no evidence of terrorist links in the early Friday mayhem, which included the suspected gunman apparently killing himself while holed up in a hotel room.
“All indications point to a criminal act by an apparently emotionally disturbed individual,” Ernesto Abella, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, told reporters.
Early Friday, a gunman burst into a casino at a resort complex, setting fire to gambling tables and stuffing a bag with casino chips. He was later found dead in a hotel room.
“Although the perpetrator gave warning shots, there apparently was no indication that he wanted to do harm or shoot anyone,” Abella said.
A comment from the Philippines’ police chief about the gunman’s attempt to rob the casino had earlier fueled speculation that the incident was some sort of heist gone wrong — a theory another senior police officer dismissed.
“His possible motivation is robbery, but the only thing is you can’t exchange those chips just anywhere. And he left the chips in the bathroom,” said Oscar Albayalde, chief director of the National Capital Region Police Office, in a briefing to media.
Police said they were also looking for a “person of interest” who is believed to be a Philippine national.
The attack sent panicked crowds fleeing from the casino. Dozens had minor injuries suffered during the stampede to escape the complex in Pasay City, just south of Manila.
National police chief Ronald dela Rosa said security footage showed the gunman ignoring a security guard who tried to question him at the entrance to the complex. He did not hurt the guard but went straight to the gambling area, dela Rosa said, according to the Associated Press.
After setting fire to gaming tables, the gunman apparently barged into a room on the fifth floor of the Maxims hotel connected to the mall and casino. He laid on the bed, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire, AP reported. The bag of gambling chips worth 113 million pesos ($226,000) was found in a toilet.
The suspect was English-speaking but had no identification cards. Dela Rosa described him as “white with a mustache,” and about 6 feet tall.
Earlier, the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist activity on the Internet, said a Filipino operative linked to the Islamic State claimed that “lone wolf soldiers” carried out the attack.
But Philippine officials dismissed any direct connections between the Islamic State and Muslim insurgents in the southern part of the country.
Resorts World Manila, in the southwestern part of metropolitan Manila near Ninoy Aquino International Airport, said on Twitter early Friday that it was working closely with police to ensure the safety of employees and guests, adding, “We ask for your prayers during these difficult times.”
The large resort complex is popular with tourists and features hotels, restaurants, bars, the casino, the shopping mall and a theater.
Last week, Duterte declared martial law on Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippines. He has also threatened to impose military rule nationwide.
Fighting in the city of Marawi, on Mindanao, broke out May 23 when Philippine troops attempted to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of a terrorist group known as Abu Sayyaf.
Thousands of residents have fled the city, and at least 140 people have been reported killed there since the siege began last week.
Hapilon declared allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 and reportedly formed an alliance with other militants under the group’s aegis. But there has been little evidence of practical Islamic State involvement in the Philippines insurgency.
Branigin reported from Washington.