US police catch suspect in mass shooting at black church

President Barack Obama said the killings showed the need for a national reckoning on gun violence in the United States.

This photo taken in April, 2015 shows Dylann Roof, 21, the suspect in the June 17 mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Lexington County Detention Centre/Associated Press
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NEW YORK // After a 15-hour manhunt, police yesterday caught the man believed to have shot dead nine people – including a state senator – at an African-American church, in an attack authorities said was racially motivated.

Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was arrested by police in Shelby, North Carolina, about 200 miles from where the murders took place in the South Carolina city of Charleston. He had previously been identified by the FBI as the suspect.

US president Barack Obama expressed his anger over the shooting of black churchgoers, saying it showed the need for a national reckoning on gun violence in the United States.

“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” he said.

Mr Obama added that he and his wife Michelle knew the murdered state senator, who was the church’s pastor. Before being shot, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, 41, tried to talk Mr Roof out of the attack, according to local media.

The justice department said a federal hate crime investigation into the killings has begun.

Mr Roof appears to have had white supremacist sympathies. A photograph on his Facebook page shows the 21-year-old wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia – now known as Zimbabwe – pinned to it.

An uncle of Mr Roof said he recognised his nephew from the surveillance camera footage released by authorities and that the suspect had been given a .45 calibre handgun as a birthday present on his 21st birthday in April.

The shooter attended a prayer meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 9pm on Wednesday night. After about an hour, he stood up and began shooting those around him. Six men and three women were killed, making it one of the deadliest church attacks in US history.

“I have to do it,” the gunman told Rev Pinckney, according to local media who quoted Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of the pastor who said she had spoken to a survivor. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

He reloaded five times, the survivor said. Mr Pickney’s sister was also among the dead, local media reported.

Authorities have not said how many people were in the church at the time of the attack, or what kind of weapon the suspect used.

South Carolina is the only state in the US to still fly the flag of the southern Confederacy at its state capitol. The Confederacy fought a war of secession against the rest of the US in order to maintain the system of black slavery.

While South Carolina did elect the nation’s second Indian-American governor, Nikki Haley, in 2011, last year she defended the Confederate flag, saying that it did not adversely affect business in the state.

The area has been one of the flashpoints of national anger over a spate of police killings of unarmed black people over the past year. In April, a bystander filmed a white police officer in the city of North Charleston, which neighbours Charleston, shooting an unarmed fleeing black suspect multiple times in the back.

The Emanuel AME Church is the oldest black church in the south, according to the National Park Service, and was founded in 1816.

A founding member of the church was Denmark Vessey, a slave who tried to organise a major slave uprising in Charleston in 1822 but was caught and executed along with dozens of others. The church was burnt to the ground by white citizens in the wake of the failed rebellion, with the current building erected in 1891.

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* Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press