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Pittsburgh synagogue shooting: suspect held after at least four killed

‘We have multiple casualties’: police respond to Pittsburgh synagogue shooting – video
At least four people are dead after a man began shooting at a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Bill Peduto, mayor of Pittsburgh, told reporters four people died at the Tree of Life synagogue. Local media reported the toll at eight. Police officials told media the gunman was in custody but did not officially conform the number of fatalities.

The gunman was taken to Mercy hospital in the city, police said.

At a brief press conference early on Saturday afternoon, Pittsburgh’s public safety director, Wendell Hissich, said: “The scene is very bad inside. There are multiple fatalities.”

Six people were injured, he said, four of them police officers. None of the officers suffered life-threatening injuries, he said, adding that the other two injuries were “critical and serious in nature”. He would not say if one of those two injured people was the suspect.

Hissich did not confirm the number of dead.

Earlier, local CBS affiliate KDJA reported that the suspect was “white male [with] a beard” and said he “walked in yelling ‘All Jews must die’”. The station and many other outlets later named the suspect as Robert Bowers.

The shooting “falls under a hate crime, being in a Jewish synagogue”, Hissich said, adding that the FBI was therefore the lead investigating agency. There was no active threat, Hissich said, and no explosives were used.

KDKA reported that people barricaded inside the synagogue made calls out during the shooting. A reporter described “an exchange of gunfire between the police and suspect on the third floor”. The gunman was injured and surrendered after negotiation, the station said.

Jeff Finkelstein, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told reporters the Tree of Life was a Conservative synagogue and said a little more than half of the Jewish community in the greater Pittsburgh area lived in and around the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

The shooting was reported shortly after 10am. Michael Eisenberg, a past president of the synagogue, told media there would have been three services in the main building, with 30 to 40 people in two larger services and about 15 in a smaller one. One of the services was a bris, a circumcision ceremony involving a male infant.

“We’ve never had any threats,” Eisenberg said, adding that the synagogue had consulted the Department of Homeland Security and other synagogues about precautions, including making doors easier to open from the inside so people could escape in the event of an attack.

Trump says synagogue should have had protection, calls for tougher death penalty laws – video
At Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Donald Trump expressed sympathy. Asked if gun laws needed to be changed, the president said: “If they had protection inside the results would have been far better. If they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, maybe it would have been a much different situation.”

Trump also said people who carried out mass shootings were “wackos” and said he thought the death penalty should be brought “into vogue”.

“It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country, frankly,” the president said, “and all over the world. And something has to be done.”

He was on his way to address a Future Farmers of America event in Indiana, at which he strongly condemned the shooting as an “act of pure evil”. Trump also had a midterms campaign rally in southern Illinois scheduled for Saturday night. It was reported on Saturday afternoon that the rally might be cancelled.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed his sympathy while his minister of the diaspora, Naftali Bennett, tweeted that he was “flying to Pittsburgh to be with our sisters and brothers on their darkest hour”.

Trump’s remarks stoked instant debate over whether the shooting could have been prevented or whether the synagogue should have been better protected.

In a statement, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf called the shooting “an absolute tragedy”.

He added: “We have been saying [this one is too many[ for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way. And in the aftermath of this tragedy, we must come together and take action to prevent these tragedies in the future. We cannot accept this violence as normal.”

Neighbors react to the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.
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Neighbors react to the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. Photograph: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
At the scene, a light rain fell as police officers cordoned off the area. Chuck Diamond stood at the corner of Murray Street and Northumberland Avenue, wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates hat, doing his best to comfort shocked and grieving locals. Until a year ago, he was the rabbi at Tree of Life.

“We were lucky,” he said. “It was the beginning of services and Jews always come late to services.”

Locally, the epithet “Squirrel Hill Jew” has long been used to describe people from this tight-knit liberal enclave, blocks away from Carnegie Mellon University.

“I’m sure everybody in the community feels like it’s an attack on them,” Diamond said, adding that he had feared such an attack for years.

“There are issues we need to address like gun control and people need to keep this in mind when they go to the polls in November,” he said.

Congressman Mike Doyle, who lives in nearby Forest Hills, said: “It’s horrific. I know people that go to church there. One of my employees got married there and her parents go there. It just makes you numb, that’s all.”

In 2016, the Democrat helped lead a sit-in on the House floor, calling for gun control legislation. “You know,” he said, “you have disturbed minds and hate in hearts and guns in their hands and this is what happens and Congress does nothing.”

A Squirrel Hill resident, a graduate student from Germany who did not wish to be named, said it was “the second time I’ve been near the scene of a mass shooting”. The student said she previously lived near the scene of the 2014 Isla Vista shooting in California, in which six people died.

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