David Cameron urges tolerance as Britain reels after MP killing

This handout picture released by ITV on June 7, 2016 shows British Prime Minister David Cameron taking part in a television event in London.
This handout picture released by ITV on June 7, 2016 shows British Prime Minister David Cameron taking part in a television event in London. PHOTO: AFP

UNITED KINGDOM (AFP) - A sombre British prime minister on Friday (June 17) urged greater tolerance in public debate and recalled parliament to pay tribute to Jo Cox, the MP whose brutal killing has caused shock in Britain and further afield.

David Cameron and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn added bouquets to a massive floral tribute to the 41-year-old parliamentarian in the northern village of Birstall, where she was gunned down on Thursday (June 16).

And with less than a week until a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU, which has split the country in two and sparked fiery debate on both sides, Cameron said it was time to "stand back".

"Where we see hatred, where we find division, where we see intolerance, we must drive it out of our politics and out of our public life and out of our communities," Cameron said.

Many commentators have questioned whether the killing could be linked to the referendum that has stoked tensions by touching on issues of national identity and immigration.

Britain is reeling from the murder of Cox, a well-liked mother-of-two, who was shot and repeatedly stabbed in broad daylight at the height of the referendum campaign.

As a mark of respect, both sides halted campaigning ahead of the knife-edge vote on June 23, with the suspension being extended to Saturday, officials said.

The move leaves the two camps with only four days to woo voters before voting on Thursday, when broadcasters are banned from carrying any political messages.

Cox, a former aid worker also known for campaigns for Syrian refugees, was killed outside a library where she was supposed to meet constituents, just a few kilometres from where she was born.

Eyewitness Hichem Ben Abdallah, 56, told AFP he heard two shots and saw the petite woman on the ground.

"Her face was full of blood," said Ben Abdallah, who campaigned alongside the Labour politician before she was elected to parliament for the first time last year.

Police arrested a 52-year-old man, named by media as local Thomas Mair. Described as a friendly loner by neighbours, Mair also battled mental illness and allegedly had ties to white supremacists.

He also suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), according to Stephen Lees, a friend of Mair's brother. "He used to scrub his hands with Brillo pads and nail brushes until they were red raw," he told AFP.

One of Cox's aides, who was at the scene, said that the attacker seemed to have been waiting for the MP to drive up, the aides' father told ITV news.

Another witness, cafe owner Clarke Rothwell, told British media the gunman had shouted "put Britain first" repeatedly during the attack.

"We don't yet know the circumstances of this case but there has been an increase in vitriol, I think, in public debate," fellow opposition Labour Party MP Yvette Cooper told BBC radio.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the politicians to tone down the debate, saying: "The exaggerations and radicalisation of... language do not help to foster an atmosphere of respect."

Cox, the first British MP to be murdered since Ian Gow was killed by Irish Republican Army paramilitaries in a car bomb in 1990, had complained to police earlier this year about "malicious communications".

In March, police arrested a man who was given a formal warning but later released, with The Times saying police had been considering putting in place additional security for her.

According to The Guardian, police were believed to have found Nazi regalia and far-right literature in their search of his long-time house in Birstall.

US advocacy group the Southern Poverty Law Center said Mair was a "dedicated supporter" of National Alliance, once the primary neo-Nazi organisation in the United States.

It said he had spent over US$620 (S$840) on reading material from the National Alliance, which advocated the creation of an all-white homeland and the eradication of Jewish people. He had also purchased a handbook on how to make a gun.

Witnesses told British media the assailant used a gun which appeared "old-fashioned" or "homemade".

Cox, whose first speech in parliament defended immigration and diversity, lived with her husband Brendan and their two children aged three and five, on a houseboat on the Thames near Tower Bridge.

As the news of her death broke, Brendan issued an impassioned appeal for unity against hatred.

"She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now," he wrote.

"One, that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her."

Before Cox's murder, opinion polls suggested Britons would likely vote to leave the EU, in a prospect that weighed on financial markets and sent the pound tumbling.