Philippine authorities search for clues on casino gunman's identity

by Mynardo MACARAIG

Manila (AFP) - Philippine authorities said Saturday they still did not know the identity of the gunman who killed 37 people when he torched a casino, as dramatic security footage was released showing him calmly firing his automatic rifle at security guards and trying to steal gambling chips or money.

The masked man stormed into the Resorts World casino and hotel complex in the capital of Manila on Friday with an M4 automatic rifle and a bottle of petrol, before setting alight a number of different rooms in the complex.

Thirty-seven people died in the fires, dozens more were injured in a stampede to escape, and the gunman was found dead about five hours later in a hotel room after committing suicide by setting fire to himself, police said.

IS claimed responsibility, with a report on its self-styled Amaq news agency saying its "fighters" carried out the attack.

But Philippine authorities continued to insist Saturday that he appeared to be a mentally disturbed man who had been attempting a bizarre solo robbery, and he was not a terrorist.

"They (IS) may claim credit but, according to evidence, it is not so," presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said.

"The evidence at this stage points to the actions of an emotionally disturbed person who was apparently engaged in criminal actions."

The footage indeed appeared to show the gunman firing into the air most of the time and not at people inside the casino, except for when confronted by security guards when he calmly shot at them, missed, then walked away slowly.

The video also showed him breaking into a secure room where chips and money were being kept, and apparently intent on stealing what he could.

The footage was shown at a briefing by Resorts World security officers, who said it appeared the gunman may have set alight the rooms as diversion so he could escape.

However Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde said on Saturday they had not identified the gunman.

"We are doing everything we can to identify this person and ensure the safety of our countrymen," he said on government radio.

Albayalde also added to a bewildering array of contradictory messages from authorities in the initial stages of the investigation by saying police now believed the gunman had arrived at the casino in a taxi.

Albayalde and other police chiefs said repeatedly throughout Friday that recorded security footage showed the gunman drove to the casino and parked his vehicle in the complex's car park.

There was no explanation from police on Saturday for the discrepancy.

- Confusion -

Police had also given confusing or contradictory statements on other key parts of the incident on Friday.

National police chief Ronald dela Rosa initially said police had shot the gunman dead, but then later reported the assailant wrapped himself in a blanket and burnt himself to death.

Albayalde said Friday that the assailant was likely a foreigner, describing him as a caucasian who spoke English.

But Albayalde said Saturday the taxi driver who took him to the casino reported he spoke fluent Tagalog, the Philippines' national language.

President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law last week across the southern region of Mindanao to crush what he called a rising threat from IS.

He made the move shortly after local militants who have declared allegiance to IS went on a rampage through the city of Marawi, 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 175 people dead.

A Muslim separatist rebellion in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines has killed more than 120,000 people since the 1970s.

The main Muslim rebel groups have signed accords with the government aimed at forging lasting peace, giving up their separatist ambitions in return for autonomy.

However a range of hardline groups have rejected the peace process and in recent years sought to unite behind IS.

Duterte said last week he might declare martial law across the rest of the country if the terrorism threat spreads.