, WASHINGTON, Jun 18 – A white gunman was at large early Thursday after he shot and killed several people at a historic black church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina in a gruesome attack police called a hate crime.
Worshippers were attending a prayer meeting in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday evening when the gunman walked in and opened fire, Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen said.
The shooting comes at a time of heightened racial tensions in America, after several high-profile killings of unarmed black men at the hands of white police in recent months led to riots and a national debate on race.
In Wednesday’s shooting, eight people were killed inside the church, and another victim died at a trauma centre shortly after. Several other people were wounded.
“At this point, we have nine victims in this hideous crime that has been committed,” Mullen told journalists.
Police said the suspect was a clean-shaven white man in his early 20s. As of 2am Thursday (0600 GMT), he remained at large and officers swarmed across the city to try to find him.
The shooting’s designation as a hate crime means federal authorities will help with the investigation and could assist in an eventual prosecution.
Officers also investigated a possible bomb threat after the shooting, but several hours later gave the all-clear.