ORLANDO: Up to 50 people were killed and 53 others injured early Sunday when a heavily-armed gunman opened fire and seized hostages at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, police said, in the worst mass shooting in US history.
Terrified survivors — who moments before were laughing and dancing with friends — described how the gunman named by media as a US citizen of Afghan descent raked the club with bullets, prompting a police SWAT team to storm the venue.
“We have cleared the building, and it is with great sadness that I share we have not 20, but 50 casualties in addition to the shooter,” Mayor Buddy Dyer told a mid-morning news briefing in Orlando, more than doubling the previously given death toll.
“There are another 53 that are hospitalised.”
President Barack Obama was kept up to date by his homeland security and counterterrorism aide on what Florida officials are investigating as a terrorist attack.
FBI official Ronald Hopper told reporters they were “confident” there was no immediate further threat to the area.
Because of the scale of the crime, however, Orlando’s mayor declared a city-wide state of emergency and has asked the Florida governor to take the same measure state-wide. The federal government has offered its full support with the probe.
While police have yet to officially identify the gunman, US television networks quoting law enforcement sources named him as Omar Mateen, who was born to Afghan parents in 1986 in the US.
CBS News reported that Mateen — who died in a shootout with police after the siege — has no apparent criminal history.
Mir Seddique, Mateen’s father told NBC News, “this [attack] has nothing to do with religion.” He added that his son got angry when he saw a gay couple engage in a public display of affection in Miami a couple of months ago and thinks it may be related to the shooting.
The chaotic events unfolded over a three hour period, beginning at around 2 am when shots rang out amid the throbbing music at the Pulse Orlando nightclub near closing time.
Police said the shots were fired by a gunman armed with an assault rifle and a handgun.
A police officer working ‘extra duties’ at the club responded, joined by two other officers, who engaged the suspect in a gun battle, Orlando police chief John Mina said.
“The suspect at some point went back inside the club where more shots were fired. This did turn into a hostage situation,” he told reporters.
“At approximately 0500 hours this morning, the decision was made to rescue hostages that were in there.”
Police teams stormed the venue, using explosives and breaking through a wall with a wheeled armoured vehicle known as a BearCat. Mina said about 30 people were rescued during the operation.
It was unclear whether all the victims were killed by the gunman or if some died in the ensuing shootout with police.
Attack an act of ‘terror’: Obama
A sombre-looking President Barack Obama expressed grief and outrage at the “horrific massacre” of 50 late-night revellers at an Orlando gay club, branding it an act of terror and hate. “We know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate,” Obama said.
Gunman pledged to IS
The gunman behind Sunday’s had previously been investigated for ties to an American suicide bomber, the FBI said Sunday.
Special Agent Ronald Hopper told reporters that Mateen had been cleared by the previous probe, but had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before the massacre. Unnamed US officials told the media that the gunman had apparently called police emergency line 9-11 before the attack and swore allegiance to the IS.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2016.