By Barbara Liston
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.
Law enforcement officials were probing evidence that suggested the attack may have been inspired by Islamic State militants, although they cautioned there was no proof that Mateen had worked directly with the group.
“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.
Shots rang out at the crowded nightclub, in the heart of one the United States’ most popular tourist destination cities, as some 350 people had packed in during celebrations of gay pride week. Clubgoers described scenes of terror, with one man who escaped saying he hid under a car and bandaged a wounded stranger.
“Words cannot and will not describe the feeling of that,” clubgoer Joshua McGill said in a posting on Facebook. “Being covered in blood. Trying to save a guy’s life.”
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.
“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 cautioned, however, that they had no conclusive evidence of any direct connection with Islamic State or any other foreign extremist group.
“So far as we know at this time, his first direct contact was a pledge of bayat (loyalty) he made during the massacre,” said a U.S. counter terrorism official. “This guy appears to have been pretty screwed up without any help from anybody.”
The attack came six months after a married couple in California fatally shot 14 people in San Bernardino in an attack inspired by Islamic State.
The shooting evolved into a hostage situation, which a team of SWAT officers ended around dawn when they 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 officials in Orlando, a city of 270,000 people and home to tourist attractions including the Disney World resort. They had initially put the death toll at 20.
“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.
The city of Orlando, which drew 62 million visitors in 2014, began releasing names of the victims on Sunday, with the first four identified as Edward Sotomayor Jr., Stanley Almodovar, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo and Juan Ramon Guerrero.
PRIOR FBI INTERVIEWS
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 led to evidence of criminal activity, the FBI’s Hopper said.
A dozen unmarked police cars had gathered around a Port Saint Lucie house that appeared to be linked to the gunman.
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” and called on Obama to resign because he did not say the words “radical Islam” in his statement responding to the shooting.
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. EDT (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.”
(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla., Zachary Fagenson in Port Saint Lucie, Fla., Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C. and Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)