At least nine people have been killed after a gunman opened fire at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in what police have described as a “hate crime”.
A bomb threat was also briefly issued after security services swarmed the area around the Emanuel AME Church, whose pastor Clementa Pinckney, a Democratic member of the South Carolina Senate, was said to be present at the time of the shooting.
Police have not confirmed the identities of the victims, eight of whom were killed in the church, another dying on the way to hospital.
Charleston police chief Greg Mullen said there were survivors, but declined to give more details.
The suspect, who is still on the loose, has been described as a clean-shaved, white male aged approximately 21, with a small, slender build, wearing a grey sweatshirt with jeans and boots.
Live Charleston shooting: nine people dead, suspect at large – latest updates
Police say they are searching for a gunman after shooting at South Carolina church on Wednesday evening.
Mullen said he believed the shooting was “a hate crime”.
“This is a tragedy that no community should have to experience … It is senseless, unfathomable,” he said.
“We are going to do everything in our power to find this individual, to lock him (the gunman) up, to make sure he does not hurt anyone else.
“The primary emphasis is going to be us catching this individual before he hurts anybody else”.
A reward would be announced for the shooter on Thursday, he said.
The city’s mayor, Joseph P Riley Jr, described the killing as an “unspeakable tragedy”, pledging to “bring this awful person to justice as soon as humanely possible”.
“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, obviously the most intolerable and unbelievable act possible,” he said.
He said he had met victims’ families in “a heartbreaking scene I have never witnessed in my life before”.
“I told them that this community sends forth it love to them and we are all in this together,” he said.
Pinckney helped lead a prayer vigil in April for Walter Scott, a black South Carolina man who was shot dead by a North Charleston police officer.
He campaigned for police to be equipped with body cameras, which he said “may not be the golden ticket, the golden egg, the end-all-fix-all, but [would help] to paint a picture of what happens during a police stop”. Mandatory body cameras became law in the state one week ago.
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal traces its roots to 1816 and is one of the largest black congregations south of Baltimore. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr addressed the church in 1962.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said in a statement she and her family were praying for the victims.
“While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another,” she said.
“Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.”
Soon after Wednesday night’s shooting, a group of pastors huddled together praying in a circle across the street.
Community organiser Christopher Cason said he felt certain the shootings were racially motivated.
“I am very tired of people telling me that I don’t have the right to be angry,” Cason said. “I am very angry right now.”
Even before Scott’s shooting in April, Cason said he had been part of a group meeting with police and local leaders to try to shore up better relationships.
Presidential candidate Jeb Bush has cancelled a planned trip to the state, and the South Carolina legislature has suspended a sitting planned for today.