BEIJING — Philippine authorities scrambled Friday to explain a bizarre and deadly chain of events that they said began as a casino robbery and ended as a gaming-floor inferno that left at least 36 people dead from smoke inhalation.
The chaotic incident in the Philippine capital was first feared to be a terrorist attack, perhaps related to ongoing fighting between the army and Islamist militants on the southern island of Mindanao. In Washington, President Trump said he was monitoring “the terrorist attack in Manila.”
But Philippine authorities said there was no evidence of terrorist links in the early Friday mayhem, which ended when the suspected gunman apparently killed 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.
The gunman, armed with an M4 assault rifle and bottles of gasoline, burst into the casino at the Resorts World Manila complex shortly after midnight, stole nearly $2.3 million worth of casino chips, and set fire to gambling tables and carpeting, police said.
The attacker was later wounded in the thigh in an exchange of gunfire with a security guard and forced his way into a hotel room, which he set on fire before shooting himself in the head, police and the resort’s chief operating officer said. The guard was also wounded in the exchange, they said.
More than 50 other people were reported injured as they rushed to escape, officials said.
The Islamic State, through its Amaq news agency, claimed responsibility Friday, saying that “Islamic State fighters carried out the Manila attack.”
But a Philippine military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr., dismissed the assertion. The attack “does not have the slightest signature of terrorism whatsoever,” he said.
“Although the perpetrator gave warning shots, there apparently was no indication that he wanted to do harm or shoot anyone,” said Abella, the presidential spokesman.
Questions about the motive remained, however. A senior police officer challenged the theory of a heist gone wrong.
“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,” Metropolitan Manila Police Chief Oscar Albayalde said in a media briefing.
“Either he lost in the casino and wanted to recoup his losses, or he went totally nuts,” Albayalde said.
The gunman, who had not been publicly identified as of late Friday, was initially described by police as a white foreigner with a mustache, English-speaking and about six feet tall. But police later said he appeared to be Filipino.
Police also said they were questioning a “person of interest” who was in the casino and was said to be cooperating.
The large resort complex in Pasay, in the southwestern part of the Manila metro area, is popular with tourists and features hotels, restaurants, bars, a shopping mall and a theater, as well as the casino.
Foreigners were among the 36 people who died at the complex. Four people from Taiwan were killed, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said, and a South Korean suffered a fatal heart attack in the commotion.
The gunman’s attack sent panicked crowds fleeing from the site. Dozens of people suffered minor injuries while trying to escape.
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.
The suspected attacker’s body was found around dawn in a room on the fifth floor of the Maxims hotel, which is connected to the mall and casino. A bag of gambling chips worth 113 million pesos ($2.3 million) was found in a toilet.
Apart from the injured security guard, none of the victims of the attack had gunshot wounds, authorities said.
Branigin reported from Washington.