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11 worshippers massacred at Pittsburgh synagogue; Suspect charged with 29 counts

News Agencies | Updated on: 29 October 2018, 12:52 IST

A heavily-armed white man, spewing anti-Semitic threats, stormed a prominent synagogue and massacred 11 worshippers in the US city of Pittsburgh, in the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of America.

The shooter, identified as 46-year-old Robert Bowers, armed with an assault rifle and three handguns, surrendered after he was injured during an exchange of fire with the police at 'Tree of Life' Congregation Synagogue at Squirell Hill in Pittsburgh, where a large number of people had gathered for a baby naming ceremony.

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said that 11 people were killed and six others injured including four policemen. He added that there were no children among fatalities or injured.

Bowers was in fair condition Saturday evening with multiple gunshot wounds, officials said. It is believed he was shot by police.

Tree of Life is located in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighbourhood, which is known as the heart of the local Jewish community.

Bowers, whose social media account reflected his hatred against the Jews, was charged with 29 counts of federal crimes of violence and firearms offenses, federal prosecutors said.

The charges include 11 counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death; and 11 counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during a crime of violence.

Bowers frequently wrote on the social network Gab, where he made a specific threat against Jews hours before allegedly conducting Saturday's attack.

In the post, Bowers said that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a humanitarian aid nonprofit group that provides assistance to refugees, brought immigrants to the United States to do violence against others.

"Screw your optics, I'm going in," he wrote.

The FBI is investigating this as a "hate crime". Before opening fire, Bowers reportedly yelled, "All Jews must die!"

Bowers frequently posted about the "migrant caravan," a group of several thousand refugees walking to the US-Mexico border from Honduras to seek asylum.

Preventing refugees in the caravan from entering the US has been a major talking point among both right-wing commentators and President Trump, who has spoken about it in recent pre-midterm election stump speeches.

FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Bob Jones said the investigation was in its early stages and there was no knowledge if the shooter was known to the law enforcement till this date.

"Gunman targeted (people) because of their faith. At this time, we believe that he was acting alone," he said.

Describing the mass shooting as an "anti-semitic act", President Donald Trump called for death penalty for such shooters.

"This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil, hard to believe, and frankly something that is unimaginable. Our nation and the world are shocked and stunned by the grief. This was an anti-semitic act," he said.

President Trump ordered that American flags be flown at half-staff at the White House and upon all public buildings and grounds, and all military bases till October 31 as a mark of "solemn respect" for the victims.

Despite his earlier reservations, Trump continued with his days programme and addressed a well-attended election rally in Illinois arguing that one cannot let their schedules or lives change.

"It's just the way it is. No matter how you look at it, you just can't let them get away with it. They're evil, they're bad, this was an anti-Semitic act which is incredible in this day and age that something like that can happen, but it happened," he told reporters in Murphysboro, Illinois, where is addressed a massive election rally.

The US goes to mid-term polls on November 6 wherein people would be electing members of the House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate and several State Governors.

Trump acknowledged that the country feels terribly after this tragic incident. "This was just a horrible, horrible event," he said.

Trump said that he plans to go to Pittsburgh.

"I will be going to Pittsburgh. I've been in touch with the governor, and I've been in touch with the mayor," he said.

Asserting that hatred and violence on the basis of religion can have no place in society, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said every American has the right to attend their house of worship in safety.

"Hatred and violence on the basis of religion can have no place in our society," Sessions said.

"These alleged crimes are reprehensible and utterly repugnant to the values of this nation. Accordingly, the Department of Justice will file hate crimes and other criminal charges against the defendant, including charges that could lead to the death penalty," Sessions said.

Former president Barack Obama called his fellow countrymen to fight the rise of anti-Semitism. "All of us have to fight the rise of anti-Semitism and hateful rhetoric against those who look, love, or pray differently. We have to stop making it so easy for those who want to harm the innocent to get their hands on a gun."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "I was heartbroken and appalled by the murderous attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue".

Extra police officers have been deployed at synagogues and Jewish centres across the US after the attack. The attack at the synagogue is the latest incident of mass shooting in America.


First published: 29 October 2018, 12:52 IST