MANILA: Thirty-six bodies were found inside a casino in the Philippine capital on Friday after a masked man burst in with an automatic rifle and set fire to the building, triggering fears of a terrorist attack, police said.
Dozens of other people were injured in a stampede as people rushed to leave Resorts World Manila, which is across a road from the Philippines' main international airport, after the man fired what police chief Ronald dela Rosa said was an M4 assault rifle and set alight parts of a gaming room about midnight.
The body of the gunman was found in a hotel room inside the complex about five hours later, Dela Rosa said.
He said the gunman only fired at a television screen and did not take aim at any people, but police later reported finding 36 bodies in the casino who apparently died from smoke inhalation.
"Thirty-six deaths, this is due to suffocation," Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde told CNN Philippines.
The gunman initially disappeared into the chaos of smoke and running people, leading to a manhunt throughout the complex that ended just after dawn when he was found dead in a hotel room, according to Dela Rosa.
"He lay down on the bed, covered himself with a thick blanket, apparently poured petrol on the blanket and burned himself," Dela Rosa said.
Before the gunmen had been killed and police had confirmed any motive, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility and US President Donald Trump also branded it a "terrorist attack" .
But Dela Rosa insisted it was most likely a robbery gone wrong, saying the man did not shoot at anyone and appeared to be intent just on stealing gambling chips.
"For now, we can say that this is not an act of terror. There is no element of violence, threat or intimidation that leads to terrorism," Dela Rosa said.
Dela Rosa said the man, who appeared to be acting alone, walked into one of the gambling rooms and fired the rifle at a large television screen, then poured gasoline onto a gambling table and set it alight.
He said the man then fired again at a stock room containing gambling chips and filled a backpack with chips worth 113 million pesos ($2.3 million).
The man left the room and went upstairs to the hotel section, but left the backpack, according to Dela Rosa.
Albayalde also insisted it was not a terrorist attack.
"It is a simple robbery and most likely it was done by a demented person," Albayalde told reporters outside the casino.
Dela Rosa said 18 of 54 injured people were in hospital. He said the others sustained only minor injuries.
People inside the casino recounted feelings of terror when the shooting occurred.
"I was about to return to the second floor from my break when I saw people running. Some hotel guests said someone yelled 'ISIS'," Maricel Navaro, an employee of Resorts World, told DZMM radio.
ISIS is another acronym for the Islamic State group.
"When we smelled smoke, we decided to go for the exit in the carpark. That's where we got out. Before we exited, we heard two gunshots and there was thick smoke on the ground floor," Navaro said.
Outside the complex, relatives of people caught inside waited on Friday morning to hear news of their loved ones.
"Our daughter called us past midnight saying she was in the VIP section of the casino and there was smoke and they were suffocating," Gil Yongco, 42, told AFP.
"We are very worried about her. We haven't heard from her."
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law last week across the southern region of Mindanao to crush what he said was a rising threat of IS there.
He made the move shortly after militants went on a rampage through the southern city of Marawi, which is about 800 kilometres (500 miles) south of Manila.
Security forces are still battling the militants in Marawi, and the clashes there have left at least 171 people dead.
Duterte said last week he may need to declare martial law across the rest of the country if the terrorism threat spread.