A gunman opened fire Wednesday evening at a historic African-American church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people including the pastor, a black state senator, in what police have called a "hate crime".
The FBI identified the shooter as Dylann Roof, a 21-year old white man from Columbia, South Carolina. Roof was still on the run early Thursday, despite a massive manhunt launched by local police with federal back-up.
The gunman sat with churchgoers inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for about an hour on Wednesday before opening fire, Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen said. Eight victims were killed inside and the ninth died in hospital, he added.
“I do believe it was a hate crime,” said Mullen, speaking to reporters at a news conference hours after the shooting. "It is unfathomable that somebody in today's society would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives."
The police also released surveillance images of the man believed to be Roof, which was tweeted on the Charleston police account along with a call for help in tracing him. Roof was described by police as about 5 foot, 9 inches tall and was seen leaving the church in a black sedan.
An uncle of Roof’s said he recognised the man in the surveillance photo as his nephew.
“The more I look at him, the more I’m convinced, that’s him,” said Carson Cowles, 56, in a phone interview.
A picture on Roof's Facebook page showed him wearing a black jacket with patches of the apartheid-era South African flag and the flag of white-ruled Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
The gunman is extremely dangerous, Mullen said, and police did not have a sense of where he might be.
“This is an unfathomable and unspeakable act by somebody filled with hate and with a deranged mind,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley told reporters.
Pastor and Senator killed
The attack happened during a Bible study class in the historic church, which has been a Charleston institution since 1816, with its roots stretching back to a religious group of free blacks and slaves organised in 1791.
The shooting recalled the 1963 bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls and galvanized the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The nine victims included the Charleston church pastor and a Democratic member of the state Senate, Rev. Clements Pinckney, tweeted prominent New York-based black politician, Rev. Al Sharpton.
The identity of the victim was confirmed by State House Minority leader Todd Rutherford, who paid tribute to the father of two in an interview with The Associated Press.
"He never had anything bad to say about anybody, even when I thought he should," Rutherford said. "He was always out doing work either for his parishioners or his constituents. He touched everybody."
History of racial tensions
A bomb threat was later reported near the scene, Charleston County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Eric Watson said.
The attack came two months after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, by a white police officer in neighboring North Charleston that sparked major protests and highlighted racial tensions in the area.
The officer has been charged with murder, and the shooting prompted South Carolina lawmakers to push through a bill helping all police agencies in the state get body cameras. Pinckney was a sponsor of that bill.
In a statement, Gov. Nikki Haley asked South Carolinians to pray for the victims and their families and decried violence at religious institutions. "We'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another," Haley said.
Soon after Wednesday night's shooting, a group of pastors huddled together praying in a circle across the street. “We pray for the families, they’ve got a long road ahead of them,” Rev. James Johnson, a local civil rights activist, said during the impromptu prayer service.
Community organiser Christopher Cason said he felt certain the shootings were racially motivated. "I am very tired of people telling me that I don't have the right to be angry," Cason said. "I am very angry right now."
Even before Scott's shooting in April, Cason said he had been part of a group meeting with police and local leaders to try to shore up relations.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)
Date created : 2015-06-18