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36 dead in suspected botched casino robbery, police seek identity of attacker

They know 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.

By JIM GOMEZ, Associated Press

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine police know the attacker was a tall, English-speaking white man with a moustache. They know 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 still didn’t know the man’s name, or why he launched his attack, only to flee to an adjoining hotel and kill himself.

Authorities suspect the man was trying to rob the casino at Resorts World Manila, a complex of hotels, restaurants, stores and a multi-floor gambling area. He fled with more than $2 million in stolen casino chips, though he apparently threw them into 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.

Police watch smoke from a hotel at the Resorts World Manila complex, early Friday, June 2, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. A gunman stormed a mall-casino complex in the Philippines, torched gambling tables and stuffed a backpack with casino chips before fleeing but was found dead of an apparent suicide in an adjacent hotel early Friday, authorities said. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Many in Manila feared in the moments 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. But while a Filipino with links to the Islamic State group said on social media that “lone wolf soldiers” from the group were behind the attack, police noted the man didn’t shoot anyone he encountered. The only gunshot wound was a guard at the complex who accidentally shot himself, authorities said.

“He would have shot all the people gambling” if his goal was terrorism, national police chief Ronald dela Rosa said.

Dela Rosa said security video showed the gunman ignoring a guard who tried to question him at the complex’s entrance, then going straight to the casino. He stuffed a backpack with gambling chips, fired his assault rifle at TV screens and set gambling tables on fire by pouring gasoline onto them from a 2-liter bottle he carried, dela Rosa said. It was not clear how he smuggled the gasoline and rifle into the crowded casino.

The gunman, whom dela Rosa described as “white, with a mustache,” about 6 feet tall and English speaking, fled the gambling area and barged into a room on the 5th 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.

Police were examining his car, which he left in a complex parking garage, authorities said.

A family grieves as they wait for their daughter’s body to be recovered from a hotel at the Resorts World Manila complex, Friday, June 2, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Police say a gunman stormed a crowded Manila casino and used gasoline to set gambling tables on fire, creating clouds of smoke that swept through the crowds and killed dozens of people. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

The bag of high-value gambling chips — with an estimated worth of 113 million to 130 million pesos, or more than $2 million — was found in a toilet.

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.

Ronald Romualdo, a Resorts World maintenance worker, said he and his colleagues heard gunshots and saw people smashing windows on the second and third floors to escape.

“We took out a ladder to save them. We were able to save many of them,” he said. “But one woman I was trying to save fell from the second floor. … I could not carry her.” He said the woman was not moving after she fell, but he didn’t know what happened to her.

About 90 minutes after the attack began, Resorts World Manila said on its Facebook page that it was on lockdown following reports of gunfire and it was working to ensure the safety of guests and workers.

Relatives and friends of victims grieve as they receive news of their loved ones at a hotel at the Resorts World Manila complex, Friday, June 2, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. A gunman stormed the crowded Manila casino early Friday and used gasoline to set gambling tables on fire, creating clouds of smoke that swept through the crowds and killed many people, police said. The gunman, who had fled with more than $2 million in stolen casino chips, then forced his way into a room in an adjoining hotel and killed himself. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

As news of the attack spread, President Donald Trump offered America’s thoughts and prayers to the Philippines.

“It is really very sad as to what’s going on throughout the world with terror,” he said from the White House Rose Garden. Trump said he was “closely monitoring the situation.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, however, made no mention of the attack in a speech he gave to soldiers Friday in the country’s south.

The SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S. terrorism monitor, said an Islamic State group-linked Filipino operative who provides daily updates on the clashes in Marawi claimed IS “lone wolf soldiers” were responsible for the attack.

An English message by the operative was distributed across several pro-IS Telegram chat groups, SITE said. According to SITE, he wrote: “The lone wolf soldiers of Khilafah attack the heart of Kufar the city of Manila in Resort World.”

“Khilafah” refers to the caliphate that IS says it created in Iraq and Syria. “Kufar” is a derogatory term for a non-Muslim.

The unrest in Marawi has sparked fears that militants might attack elsewhere to divert the focus of thousands of troops trying to quell the siege. But dela Rosa said, “We cannot attribute this to terrorism without concrete evidence.”

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Associated Press journalists Teresa Cerojano, Joeal Calupitan and Bullit Marquez contributed to this report.