Mexican president called the attack a "barbaric act of terror" and pledged to keep fighting organised crime [Reuters]

At least 53 people have been killed and a dozen more injured after gunmen burst into a casino in the northern Mexican city of Monterey and set it on fire.

Rodrigo Medina, governor of Nuevo Leon state, told the Televisa television network on Friday that 53 people were killed, and rescue teams said the death toll could rise.

Felipe Calderon, the Mexican president, called the attack a "barbaric act of terror" and promised to keep fighting organised crime.

The incident at Casino Royale, represented one of the deadliest attacks on an entertainment centre in Mexico since President Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels in late 2006.

One survivor said the group of masked gunmen burst inside the casino and threatened gamblers, then sprayed gasoline on the carpets and set fire to the place.

With shouts and profanities, the attackers told the customers and employees to get out. But many terrified customers and employees fled further inside the building, where they died trapped amid the flames and thick smoke that soon billowed out of the building.

Fernando Larrazabal, the Mayor of Monterrey, said many of the bodies were found inside the casino's bathrooms, where employees and customers had locked themselves to escape the gunmen. Angel Flores, a commander of the Monterrey Green Cross rescue service, said most died of asphyxiation.

'Act of terror'

Authorities said a drug cartel was apparently responsible for the attack. Cartels often extort casinos and other businesses, threatening to attack them or burn them to the ground if they refuse to pay.

In an act of desperation, authorities commandeered backhoes from a nearby construction site to break into the casino's walls to try to reach the people trapped inside.

"This is a night of sadness for Mexico," Alejandro Poire, the federal security spokesman, said in a televised address.

"An unspeakable, repugnant, unacceptable act of terror has been committed."

"These unspeakable acts of terror will not go unpunished," Poire said, adding federal authorities were aiding state forces in the investigation.

While there was no immediate information linking the attack to drug cartels, Monterrey has seen bloody turf battles between the Zetas and Gulf cartels in recent months.

Once Mexico's symbol of development and prosperity, the city is seeing this year's drug-related murders on a pace to double last year's and triple those of the year before.

Larrazabal said the casino, in a well-off part of Monterrey, had been closed by authorities in May for building an expansion without a permit, but a judge later granted the owner an injunction to continue operating.

Initial reports said 11 patrons had been killed, but the death toll climbed as emergency personnel and firefighters searched the casino building. Medics treated survivors for smoke inhalation.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies