(CNSNews.com) – Philippines police on Friday reiterated that the actions of a lone gunman in a Manila casino resort constituted a robbery rather than a terrorist attack, as they also confirmed that three dozen people were found dead in the complex, apparently having suffocated due to smoke inhalation.
A man opened fire in the Resorts World Manila complex, used gasoline to torch gaming tables and seized a large number of gambling chips before fleeing. He was later found dead in a hotel room in the complex, having apparently deliberately set himself alight.
Earlier the U.S.-based SITE intelligence group reported that an ISIS operative in the country’s troubled southern Mindanao region claimed that “lone wolf soldiers of Khilafah” were responsible for an attack at Resorts World Manila.
But Philippine National Police Chief Gen. Ronald dela Rosa told reporters outside the hotel that the terrorist group “can claim whatever they want, whatever propaganda they want to show to the world but as far as the police is concerned we cannot declare that this is a terror-related incident.”
Had the gunman been a terrorist, hae said, he could have detonated bombs rather than setting himself on fire in a hotel room. Police also said video footage indicated that he had not deliberately fired at people in the casino.
The Philippines’ military is battling ISIS-linked radical Islamists in Mindanao. “Khalifah” is the English transliteration of the Arabic word for caliphate.
The chief of the National Capital Region police, Oscar Albayalde, confirmed to the GMA television network that in addition to the gunman’s charred remains the bodies of 36 people had been recovered from the complex’s gaming area. Most had evidently suffocated in the heavily smoke-filled atmosphere.
Dozens of people were hurt. Unconfirmed reports suggested that some had been injured jumping or falling from windows while trying to escape.
The government’s national security advisor, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., said security forces were on high alert and authorities were not discounting the possibility of a terrorist attack in Manila.
In a statement quoted by Manila’s ABS-CBN News television network, Esperon urged members of the public not to become “unwitting tools of terror by spreading false rumors, like claiming that the Resorts World [incident] is terror-related. Such claims and announcements don’t help.”
Resorts World Manila comprises a casino, four hotels as well as restaurants, a movie theater and mall, located near the capital’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
In a statement released late Friday morning local time, the company said, “It is with deep sadness that in addition to the 54 injured, there are 35 reported casualties from this tragic incident.”
“The company mourns with the families. We are committed to extending full support and assistance to the injured and the families of the deceased,” it said. “This unexpected violent attack on innocent lives will not break the spirit on which Resorts World Manila was built. We ask for your prayers during these dark hours.”
A spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, Ernesto Abella, told reporters there was no direct link between the casino incident and ongoing clashes in Mindanao.
Mindanao is home to a large Muslim population in the otherwise predominantly Catholic country.
For well over two decades, the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group carried out a vicious campaign of terror there, beheading hostages including Catholic priests and nuns, and kidnapping and murdering Americans.
In mid-2014, a video posted online showed ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon leading a group of men pledging allegiance to ISIS. Hapilon remains on the FBI “most wanted” list, with a $5 million reward on his head.
Apart from ASG, which sometimes styles itself Islamic State-Philippines province, other radical jihadists in Mindanao are also believed to be inspired by ISIS.
One of them, known as the Maute Group after the name of its leader, in recent weeks seized parts of Marawi, a mostly Muslim city of 200,000 people, killing soldiers and civilians, seizing a Catholic priest and beheading a police official, prompting Duterte to declare martial law across the Mindanao region.