MANILA — Philippine police say the attacker was a tall, English-speaking white man with a moustache. They say he carried an assault rifle, and that he used gasoline to start a casino fire that caused clouds of smoke that left at least 36 people dead Friday morning in a sprawling entertainment complex in Manila.
But by Friday evening, police said they still didn’t know the man’s name, or why he launched his attack at the Resorts World Manila complex, only to flee to an adjoining hotel and kill himself.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, but Philippine police said they believed it had been a robbery gone wrong.
Police told reporters the man stole more than $2 million in gambling chips and avoided shooting people he encountered in the casino, pointing his gun upward when he fired some shots.
“He would have shot all the people gambling” if his goal was terrorism, national police chief Ronald dela Rosa said.
But hours later, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility in a statement, saying “Brother Abu al-Kheir al-Arkhabili was able to immerse among a gathering of Christian fighters in the Resorts World Manila in Manila where he carried out killing and hurting until he died as a martyr. About 100 Christians were killed or wounded.”
Military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla rejected the claim, saying the attack “does not have the slightest signature of terrorism whatsoever”.
“As in previous incidents, this group is prone to claim and admit every criminal incident and label it as its own, clearly indicative of its pure penchant for propaganda,” Padilla said.
Many in Manila feared after the attack began early Friday that it was linked to ongoing battles with Muslim militants aligned with the Islamic State group in the southern city of Marawi. The fighting has placed much of the country on edge and raised fears that the IS group was gaining a foothold. The Philippines has faced Muslim insurgencies for decades, though much of the violence has occurred in the troubled south, where Marawi is located.
The attack occurred at a sprawling mall-like complex near the Manila airport that includes hotels, restaurants, stores and a multi-floor gambling area. Police said that during the attack the man stole more than $2 million worth of casino chips, though he apparently abandoned them in a toilet soon after.
“Either he lost in the casino and wanted to recoup his losses or he went totally nuts,” Metropolitan Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde said.
As the gunman left, he exchanged shots with a building guard who managed to shoot him in the leg after being wounded, police and casino officials said.
“Severe blood loss from the gunshot wound significantly slowed the assailant down and resulted in his holing up in a room where he took his own life,” said Stephen Reilly, Resort World’s chief operating officer.
Dela Rosa said security video showed the gunman earlier ignoring a guard who tried to question him at the complex’s entrance. He then barged into the crowded casino carrying the gasoline and assault rifle after overcoming efforts by guards to stop him. He stuffed a backpack with the gambling chips, fired his rifle at TV screens and set gambling tables on fire by pouring gasoline onto them from a two-liter bottle he carried, dela Rosa said.
The gunman, whom dela Rosa described as “white, with a mustache”, about six feet tall and English speaking, fled the gambling area and barged into a room on the fifth floor of Maxims Hotel, which is part of the Resorts World complex. He lay down on the bed, covered himself with a blanket, doused himself with gasoline and then set himself on fire, dela Rosa said. He carried no identity documents, police said.
“I saw the gunman,” said a 23-year-old casino employee who declined to give her name. “He was a tall man, he was wearing a ski mask. He was carrying an armalite [rifle]. I saw him fire his gun twice, I saw him burning gaming tables. But I did not see what he did after that because I fled.”
Police were examining a car that the gunman left in a complex parking garage, authorities said. Police Senior Superintendent Tomas Apolinario said the car’s owner was being questioned and had denied knowing the gunman.
The attack sent hundreds of people fleeing through the complex and into the night. A South Korean died of a possible heart attack suffered during the evacuation, the Foreign Ministry said. More than 70 people suffered mostly minor injuries in the stampede to escape.
Family members of employees spent hours waiting for news of their relatives, hoping through the night that they had survived.