US police on Thursday captured a 21-year-old white gunman who killed nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation’s oldest black churches in Charleston, South Carolina, an attack being probed as a hate crime.
The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions.
The suspect — identified as Dylann Roof of Columbia, South Carolina — has been taken into custody, the attorney general said.
“I can confirm that there is a suspect in custody,” Loretta Lynch said.
She gave no other details.
US media reports said Roof was apprehended at a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina.
Churchgoers had gathered Wednesday evening when the shooter walked into the building, sat in the congregation for about an hour and then opened fire, Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen said.
Three men and six women were killed, and several other people were wounded. Among the dead was the church’s pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a Democratic state senator.
President Barack Obama spoke to the press shortly after the arrest, saying he was saddened and angered by the attack and that he knew Pinckney.
“There is something particularly heartbreaking about death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace,” he said.
He also called for legislation to place restrictions on gun usage.
Police released photos of Roof — a slender white man with dark blond or brown hair in a distinctive bowl-type haircut and wearing a grey sweater.
“He obviously is extremely dangerous,” 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 protests and a national debate on race.
A Justice Department spokesperson said a hate crimes probe had been opened, with FBI agents working in tandem in with local police.
“My heart is breaking for Charleston and South Carolina,” said Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, one of only two African Americans in the Senate.
Jim Curley, owner of AC’s Bar & Grill, which is located a few blocks from the church, said locals were shocked anyone would carry out an attack in the popular tourist area.
“This is absolutely bizarre,” Curley told AFP. “This is really completely out of the blue… We have no idea what the motivation is.”
The incident once again highlights broad racial tensions that persist in many US communities, more than five decades after the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial and other forms of discrimination.
In April, in the neighboring city of North Charleston, a white police officer was charged after a video surfaced of him fatally shooting a fleeing black man in the back after a traffic stop.
But Curley said the neighborhood’s residents typically get along fine.
“Generally, there’s not a great deal of racial tension,” he said.
Charleston is known locally as “The Holy City,” due to its large number of churches and historical mix of immigrant ethnic groups that brought a variety of creeds to the city on the Atlantic coast.
“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, is inexplicable,” Mayor Joseph Riley said.
Dot Scott, the head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said the shooter may not have drawn attention because of the church’s location.
“It sits in an area that a lot of the tourists frequent. It’s not out of the ordinary that folks just walk into the sanctuary and sit and listen to what’s going on,” Scott told CNN.
Officials did not release detailed information about the victims, or say what kind of gun was used.
According to its website, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest such church in America’s southern states.
The church was founded in 1816 and in 1822 was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt, the website states.
“The only reason someone can walk into church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” Riley said. “It is the most dastardly act that one can possibly imagine.”
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush canceled campaign events that had been planned for Thursday in Charleston.
“Heartbreaking news from Charleston – my thoughts and prayers are with you all,” tweeted Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who had been in Charleston earlier Wednesday.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.