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ORLANDO — A heavily armed assailant opened fire in a packed nightclub early Sunday, killing 50 people in the deadliest shooting spree in U.S. history, authorities said.
Mayor Buddy Dyer said 53 wounded in the attack at Pulse Orlando, a gay club just south of downtown. A federal law enforcement official told USA TODAY the suspect has been identified as Omar Mateen of Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Police Chief John Mina said the tragedy began at 2:02 a.m., when three police officers engaged the suspect in a gun battle outside the club. A hostage situation then took place inside, and a SWAT team was called in, Mina said. Police received updates from patrons trapped in the club, and decided to storm the club at about 5 a.m.
“Our biggest concern was further loss of life,” Mina said. “We exchanged gunfire with the suspect, and he was dead at the scene.”
Mina initially estimated the death toll at more than 20 people. Hours later the true scale of the horror was revealed. Mina said one officer was wounded and at least 30 people were rescued.
Fifty people were killed and 53 injured at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in the worst mass shooting in US history. Authorities are investigating the massacre as a potential terrorist attack.
Clubgoers fled the dance floor chaos in the early hours in a rush for safety, as a local police officer moonlighting as a security guard exchanged shots with the attacker, identified as Omar Mateen, a US citizen from Port St Lucie, Florida. Mateen, whose parents are from Afghanistan, was killed as police stormed the club.
FBI special agent in charge Ron Hopper told reporters “we do have suggestions that [the] individual might have leanings toward” Islamist extremism. But the bureau has not yet classified the killings as either terrorism or an anti-gay hate crime, he added.
Jerry Demings, Orange County sheriff, said: “This is an incident, as I see it, that we certainly classify as a domestic terror incident.”
As law enforcement agencies from as far away as Boston and Chicago offered their assistance, Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer asked Florida’s governor to declare a state of emergency. “We’re dealing with something we never imagined, and something that is unimaginable,” Mr Dyer said.
The attack was the deadliest shooting in US history. A massacre at Virginia Tech university in 2007 that left 32 dead had been the worst US mass shooting. If confirmed as the work of an Islamist extremist, it would be the worst terror attack on US soil since September 11 2001.
Coming amid a bitter presidential election contest, the killings are certain to roil US politics. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who advocates a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US, on Sunday morning tweeted: “Really bad shooting in Orlando. Police investigating possible terrorism. Many people dead and wounded.”
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, his likely opponent, alluded to the “devastating news” from Orlando and offered thoughts for “those affected by this horrific act” in a signed tweet.
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