Dozens of people are feared dead in a fire that started after a gunman burst into a Manila casino and set gaming tables alight in what is thought to be a failed robbery attempt.

Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, Ernesto Abella, said at least 36 people had died, mostly due to suffocation following the blaze.

The unidentified lone gunman who stormed the entertainment resort early on Friday died after setting himself alight as armed officers searched the building, police said.

National police chief Dela Rosa earlier said the attacker “was killed by our troops”, but later confirmed the suspect had killed himself after firing at officers. “He burned himself inside the hotel room 510,” dela Rosa told a media conference. “He lay down on the bed, covered himself in a thick blanket and apparently doused himself in gasoline.”

Police said later they were looking at a “person of interest” in connection with the attack. Tomas Apolinario, chief of Manila’s southern police district, said the person was still alive and was believed to be a Philippine national.

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South Korea’s foreign ministry said one South Korean died of an apparent heart attack after being evacuated from the casino and that three others had light injuries from the stampede and smoke set off by the attack.

The venue owner, Resorts World Manila, said security guards and police tracked the gunman down at about 7am, after the midnight attack, and that he set himself on fire and shot himself. Fifty-four people have been taken to nearby hospitals, it said. It is unclear whether they are injured or dead.

Armed police were deployed about 2am on Friday after gunfire and loud bangs were heard inside the building. Dozens of people were injured as they tried to escape, before officers gained control of the situation.

The man walked into one of the gambling rooms, set fire to tables and fired an M4 rifle but did not appear to have shot anyone, the national police chief Ronald dela Rosa said earlier.

“We cannot attribute this to terrorism,” he told the local radio station, DZMM. “We are looking into a robbery angle because he did not hurt any people and went straight to the casino chips storage room. He parked at the second floor and barged into the casino, shooting large TV screens and poured gasoline on a table setting it on fire.”

Dela Rosa said the suspect was “foreign-looking, a Caucasian, about six feet tall”.

The man was briefly on the run but, about five hours later, local and national police chiefs both said he had died. However, Oscar Albayalde of the Manila police office said the man had taken his own life, while Dela Rosa was quoted as saying his men had shot him.

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A fire was still burning on the second floor of the building on Friday morning, the local Fire Protection Bureau’s spokesman, Ian Manalo, said. The military’s spokesman, Restituto Padilla, said: “We are monitoring the situation. The police are on top of the situation. We will issue a statement when we have a complete picture of the incident.”

The Philippine Red Cross said it had taken three people to hospital after the incident, which happened at around 2am local time (6pm GMT). Pictures circulating on social media showing smoke pouring out of a building at Resort World Manila, which is close to the city’s airport.

The Manila Times quoted Fernando Atienza, a representative of the aid organisation, as saying that at least 25 people had been injured and some people had suffered serious injuries because they jumped from the second floor of the hotel. The resort’s chief operating officer, Stephen Reilly, confirmed that shots had been fired and that the building was in lockdown.

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