CHARLESTON (South Carolina) - A white gunman slaughtered at least nine black worshippers in cold blood in a historic church in a southern US city in what the federal authorities are investigating as a hate crime.
The shooter, a 21-year-old white man with a criminal record identified as Dylann Storm Roof, was taken into custody yesterday in Shelby, North Carolina.
The killer sat with churchgoers inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for about an hour on Wednesday and went on a racist rant before murdering six women and three men, according to witnesses who survived.
According to the New York Daily News, one of the victims said the killer told them: "You're taking over our country."
The gunman told one woman he was letting her live so she could tell the world about the bloodbath inside the church, Charleston's National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People president Dot Scott told the Post and Courier.
Police chief Gregory Mullen said the gunman was considered extremely dangerous.
"To have an awful person come in and shoot them is inexplicable, obviously the most intolerable and unbelievable act possible," Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley told reporters. "The only reason someone could walk into a church to shoot people praying is out of hate."
A picture on Roof's Facebook page showed him with a vacant look on his face wearing a black jacket with patches of the apartheid-era South African flag and the flag of white-ruled Rhodesia, which is now part of Zimbabwe.
This is the most unspeakable and heart-breaking tragedy. People in prayer on a Wednesday evening. A ritual coming together, praying and worshipping God. To have an awful person come in and shoot them is inexplicable.
- Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley
There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture.
- National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People president Cornell William Brooks
He just said, 'I have to do it... You rape our women, and you're taking over our country.'
- Ms Sylvia Johnson, cousin of victim Clementa Pinckney, the church pastor and a South Carolina state senator, on what one survivor said the gunmen told churchgoers before shooting them
America's latest mass shooting comes at a time of heightened racial tensions in the country, after several high-profile killings of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers in recent months led to riots and a national debate on race. It recalled the 1963 bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls and galvanised the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The Charleston church is one of the largest and oldest black congregations in the South. It has its roots in the early 19th century, and was founded in part by a freed slave who was executed for organising a revolt, according to the US National Park Service.
Among the dead in Wednesday's shooting was the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, 41, the church's respected and beloved pastor and a member of the state Senate.
His cousin Sylvia Johnson told MSNBC that the gunmen told the congregation "you have to go".
"He just said, 'I have to do it.' He said, 'You rape our women, and you're taking over our country.'" Then he reloaded five times as people begged him to stop shooting, she said. Some survivors reportedly played dead to avoid being killed.
The community reacted with shock and grief. "I'm heartbroken," said Ms Shona Holmes, 28, a bystander at the aftermath of the shooting. "It's just hurtful to think that someone would come in and shoot people in a church. If you're not safe in church, where are you safe?"
The shooting's designation as a hate crime means the federal authorities will help with the probe.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, cancelled an appearance in Charleston that had been scheduled for yesterday. "Governor Bush's thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and families affected by this tragedy," his campaign team said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE