[BBC] – US police are hunting a 21-year-old man they suspect shot dead nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Charleston police named the suspect as Dylann Roof of Lexington, South Carolina. The gunman is believed to have sat in on a bible study meeting for up to an hour on Wednesday evening before opening fire, killing six women and three men including the church pastor.
Officials have called it a hate crime. The US Justice Department said it would carry out a federal hate crimes investigation in “parallel to and co-operative with the state’s investigation”. The weekly bible study meeting was under way in the church on Calhoun Street when the shooting unfolded at about 21:00 local time (01:00 GMT Thursday).
Charleston police chief Gregory Mullen said that when police arrived at the scene eight people were already dead in the church and that one other person died later in hospital. There were three survivors, he added.
One woman survivor told her family that the gunman said he was letting her live so she could report what happened, according to the Charleston Post and Courier. Police described the suspect as white, with a slender build and clean shaven. They said he was wearing a grey sweatshirt, blue jeans and Timberland boots.
They released images from surveillance cameras showing him at the church, and also of a black four-door saloon car he was seen driving away in.
“This is a very dangerous individual who should not be approached,” Mr Mullen said.
Within a few hours of the release of the photos, Charleston police confirmed their suspect to be Mr Roof.
They said he may be driving a black Hyundai with the registration LGF330. Mr Roof’s uncle, Carson Cowles, was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying he had recognised his nephew from the photo.
He described him as quiet and soft-spoken, and said he had received a .45-calibre pistol for his birthday, Reuters reports.
Local court records showed Mr Roof had been arrested by the police on two separate occasions earlier this year, over a drug offence and trespassing.
News of the shooting was met with shock and sadness within the community. Some residents formed prayer circles outside the church.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called it “an unfathomable and unspeakable” tragedy. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott tweeted: “My heart is breaking for Charleston and South Carolina tonight.”
Bystander Shona Holmes said: “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?” Among the dead was the high-profile 42-year-old pastor of the church Clementa Pinckney, a father of two who was also a Democratic state Senator in South Carolina.
His fellow senator Kent Williams said his death was hard to believe. “It’s devastating, devastating that someone would go into God’s house and commit such a crime,” he told CNN. “It’s just a huge, huge loss.”
Senator Pinckney had recently sponsored a bill to make body cameras mandatory for all police officers in South Carolina.
The legislation was in response to the death two months ago of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer in North Charleston.
The shooting prompted angry protests and highlighted racial tension in the city. The officer has since been charged with murder.