Massacre at U.S. nightclub, ISIS claims responsibility

Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse night club,in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse night club,in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

By Barbara Liston
June 12, 2016

Police cars and fire trucks are seen outside the Pulse night club where police said a suspected gunman left multiple people dead and injured in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. Orlando Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

Police cars and fire trucks are seen outside the Pulse night club where police said a suspected gunman left multiple people dead and injured in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. Orlando Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) – A man armed with an assault rifle killed 50 people at a packed gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida on Sunday in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, which President Barack Obama described as an act of terror and hate.

Police killed the shooter, who was identified as Omar Mateen, 29, a Florida resident and U.S. citizen who was the son of immigrants from Afghanistan.

Mateen called 911 on Sunday morning and made comments saying he supported the Islamic State militant group, officials said.

“It has been reported that Mateen made calls to 911 this morning in which he stated his allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State,” said Ronald Hopper, the FBI’s assistant special agent in charge on the case.

(Related story below: Islamic State claims responsibility for Orlando shooting)

U.S. officials cautioned, however, that they had no conclusive evidence of any direct connection with Islamic State or any other foreign extremist group.

“We know enough to say this was an act of terror, an act of hate,” Obama said in a speech from the White House. “As Americans, we are united in grief, in outrage and in resolve to defend our people.”

U.S. officials have reached no definitive judgment on the killer’s precise motives, Obama added.

“We must spare no effort to determine what, if any, inspiration or association this killer may have had with terrorist groups,” he said.

Fifty-three people were wounded in the rampage. It was the deadliest single U.S. mass shooting incident, eclipsing the 2007 massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech university.

Pulse was crowded with some 350 revellers at a Latin music night when the attack happened.

Clubgoer Joshua McGill described in a posting on Facebook how he fled the attack.

“I hid under a car and found one of the victims that was shot,” McGill said, describing trying to bandage the victim with his shirt and quietly dragging him to a nearby police officer. “Words cannot and will not describe the feeling of that. Being covered in blood. Trying to save a guy’s life.”

A hostage situation developed, and three hours later a team of SWAT officers used armoured cars to storm the club before shooting dead the gunman. It was unclear when the victims were killed.

The number of dead shocked local officials, who had initially put the death toll at 20.

“Today we’re dealing with something that we never imagined and is unimaginable,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. He said 39 people died inside the club, two outside, and nine others died after being rushed to hospital.

Orlando Regional Medical Center Hospital said it had admitted 44 victims, including nine who died, and had carried out 26 operations on victims.

Officers arrive at the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub, where people were killed by a gunman, in Orlando, Florida, U.S June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

Officers arrive at the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub, where people were killed by a gunman, in Orlando, Florida, U.S June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

PRIOR FBI INTERVIEWS

Orlando gay nightclub mass shooting suspect Omar Mateen, 29 is shown in this undated photo. Orlando Police Department/Handout via Reuter

Orlando gay nightclub mass shooting suspect Omar Mateen, 29 is shown in this undated photo. Orlando Police Department/Handout via Reuter

Mateen had twice been interviewed by FBI agents, in 2013 and 2014, after making comments to co-workers indicating he supported militant groups, but neither interview lead to evidence of criminal activity, the FBI’s Hopper said.

As police tried to determine what motivated Mateen’s rampage, about a dozen unmarked police cars had gathered around a Port Saint Lucie house that appeared to be linked to the gunman. Police on the scene declined to comment, and neighbours said they didn’t  much activity in or around the white stucco home

“I’ve never seen anyone come in or out,” said Aryne Rackley, who has lived three doors away for the past three years. “Nobody is ever in the backyard.”

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on a congressional intelligence committee, said there were indications of “an ISIS-inspired act of terrorism,” referring to Islamic State.

Likely Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, said he was “right on radical Islamic terrorism.”

He called in a tweet on Sunday for “toughness and vigilance.” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted a brief statement after the attacks, but did not speculate on the motives of the gunman.

Florida Governor Rick Scott called for Americans to hold a moment of silence at 6 p.m. ET (2200 GMT) to commemorate the dead. World leaders including Pope Francis, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and the leaders of Canada and Afghanistan condemned the attack.

Mateen was born in New York of parents who were immigrants from Afghanistan, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

If confirmed as an act of terrorism, it would be the deadliest such attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda-trained hijackers crashed jetliners into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing some 3,000 people.

Mateen also referenced the ethnic Chechen brothers who killed three people in a bombing attack at the Boston Marathon in 2013, according to law enforcement officials.

The Orlando attacker was carrying an AR-15 style assault rifle and a handgun, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said. He also had an unidentified “device”, said Orlando Police Chief John Mina.

The choice of target was especially heart-wrenching for members of the U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, said LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida.

“Gay clubs hold a significant place in LGBTQ history. They were often the only safe gathering place and this horrific act strikes directly at our sense of safety,” the group said in a statement. “We will await the details in tears of sadness and anger.”

Orlando has a population of more than 270,000 and is the home of the Disney World amusement park and many other tourist attractions that drew 62 million visitors in 2014.

Also on Sunday, a man was arrested in California with assault weapons and possible explosives and told authorities he was in the Los Angeles area for the gay pride festival, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Zachary Fagenson in Port Saint Luice, Fla., Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Mark Hosenball in Washington and Chris Michaud in New York; Writing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)

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Islamic State claims responsibility for Orlando shooting

By Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball

A handout photograph posted by the Orlando Police Department on Twitter with the words, "Pulse shooting: In hail of gunfire in which suspect was killed, OPD officer was hit. Kevlar helmet saved his life", in reference to the operation against a gun man inside Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. Orlando Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

A handout photograph posted by the Orlando Police Department on Twitter with the words, “Pulse shooting: In hail of gunfire in which suspect was killed, OPD officer was hit. Kevlar helmet saved his life”, in reference to the operation against a gun man inside Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. Orlando Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Islamic State claimed responsibility on Sunday for the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, but U.S. officials said they had seen no immediate evidence linking the militant group to the massacre in Orlando, Florida.

Islamic State’s claim was carried by Amaq, the organization’s news agency.

“The armed attack that targeted a gay night club in the city of Orlando in American state of Florida which left over 100 people dead or injured was carried out by an Islamic State fighter,” said the Amaq statement.

At least 50 people were killed and 53 others were wounded in the Pulse nightclub before the suspected gunman was shot to death by police.

The suspected shooter was identified by authorities as Omar Mateen, a Florida resident who a senior FBI official said might have had leanings toward Islamic State.

The FBI official cautioned, however, that proving the suspected link to radical Islamism required further investigation.

Two U.S. officials familiar with the investigation into the massacre said that no evidence had yet been found showing a direct link between the massacre and Islamic State or any other militant group.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said they had yet to see any direct contacts between any extremist group and the suspect.

Speaking at the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama called the attack “an act of terror” and an “act of hate,” and said the FBI would “spare no effort” to determine whether the suspect had been inspired by any extremist group.

The two officials familiar with the investigation said a leading theory was that the suspect somehow was inspired by Islamic militants.

One official said early information, the nature of which he did not disclose, indicated that the shooter was motivated by a mixture of “hate” and religion.

Federal authorities believe the shooter was Mateen, the U.S.-born son of Afghan immigrants, he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the worst mass shooting in U.S. history that took place in Orlando, Florida, at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the worst mass shooting in U.S. history that took place in Orlando, Florida, at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

‘ACT OF TERRORISM’

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement issued after a briefing on the massacre that several factors indicated the attack was an Islamic State-inspired “act of terrorism.”

He noted that the incident occurred during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, that Islamic State had called for attacks during that period, the target was an LGBT nightclub and it was hit during Gay Pride weekend.

Moreover, he said, that if accurate, “according to local law enforcement the shooter declared his allegiance to ISIS (Islamic State).”

An audio message purportedly issued last month by the spokesman of Islamic State called on followers to launch attacks in the United States and Europe during Ramadan, which began on June 5 in the United States.

“Ramadan, the month of conquest and jihad. Get prepared, be ready … to make it a month of calamity everywhere for the non-believers … especially for the fighters and supporters of the caliphate in Europe and America,” said the statement allegedly made by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and distributed over Twitter accounts usually associated with Islamic State.

“The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us. If one of you hoped to reach the Islamic State, we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night,” said the audio clip, the authenticity of which could not be verified.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Peter Cooney)

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