At least 50 people have been killed after a shooting early Sunday morning at a gay nightclub in Orlando, according to the city’s mayor. Police confirm the gunman was killed after taking more than 30 people hostage. At least 53 people were injured.
Orlando police said the shooting is being treated as an “act of domestic terrorism” and are urging people to stay away from the area. They identified the shooter as Omar Mateen, a U.S. citizen of Afghan descent.
U.S. officials said on Sunday they had seen no immediate evidence of any direct connection between the worst mass shooting in U.S. history and Islamic State or any other foreign extremist group.
Despite quick accusations that the incident was inspired by the Islamic State group, two officials familiar with the investigation said they had yet to uncover any direct contacts between any extremist group and the suspect who opened fire in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
The FBI had him on file since 2013, when he made inflammatory comments at work, according to an FBI official. He was interviewed twice, and again in 2014 when he was suspected of links to a U.S. suicide bomber, but investigations proved inconclusive. Mateen then reportedly called 911 pledging allegiance to the IS group, said the official at a press conference in Orlando.
An audio message purportedly issued last month by the spokesman of Islamic State group called on followers to launch attacks in the United States and Europe during Ramadan, which began on June 5 in the United States.
NBC interviewed Mateen’s father, Mir Seddique, who said that, “this has nothing to do with religion.” He said his son had been angered by two men kissing a couple of months ago.
“We are saying we are apologizing for the whole incident,” he told NBC. “We weren’t aware of any action he is taking. We are in shock like the whole country.”
Mateen’s ex-wife told the Washington Post that he repeatedly assaulted her and that he was not a religious person.
The Islamic State group’s news agency issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, but it has not been confirmed, Florida Senator Bill Nelson told reporters in Orlando.
It is the 173rd mass shooting in the United States this year — on average there’s been more than one per day in 2016 — and the deadliest shooting carried out by non-state actors in U.S. history, eclipsing the 32 people killed in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech university.
Security has been stepped up at gay pride festivities across the United States. Late Sunday morning authorities in Santa Monica, California, said they stopped a man with possible explosives in his car alongside assault rifles and ammunition, according to the Los Angeles Times. The driver reportedly said he was in town for a gay pride event.
In Orlando, meanwhile, officials are calling Sunday’s attack a hate crime.
“Today we’re dealing with something that we never imagined and is unimaginable,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, more than doubling an earlier estimate that about 20 bodies were found in the Pulse nightclub. He declared a state of emergency in the city and encouraged the governor to do the same.
Police said in a press conference that the nationality of his family members are “indicative” and that, considering the timing and location of the attack, the incident was “an awful hate crime.”
President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to provide any assistance needed to Florida police investigating the shooting, the White House said in a statement. He called in attack “this was an act of terror and an act of hate.”
“We will not give in to fear or turn against each other,” he said. “Instead, we will stand united as Americans to protect our people and defend our nation, and to take action against those who threaten us.” He did not specify further action except the he would “spare no effort” in the investigation and encourage for gun control regulation.
Mateen had bought two firearms in the last few days, according to ATP police.
Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, urged the media not to sensationalize the story and rush to judgment before obtaining facts, called the incident an “hour of horror.”
The attack is seen as targeting the broader LGBT community, which is celebrating a month of pride festivities. The community is mobilizing its counselors and holding a vigil tonight in downtown Orlando, reported the Orlando Sentinel. Washington, D.C. will also buff up its security at the Pride Parade Festival on Sunday, which expects to draw over 100,000 people.
The incident took place in Orlando at the Pulse Club, a gay nightclub, that was hosting a weekly Latin Night with three Latino DJs playing bachata, merengue and salsa music. Many of the family members seeking their loved ones at local hospitals after the shooting were Latino.
The club, which was popular with a diverse crowd, was founded to honor the owner’s brother who died of AIDS and to support the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Barbara Poma, whose brother died in 1991, opened Pulse in 2004 with business partner Ron Legler. The venue promoted gay rights and put on events supporting happenings in the gay community, ranging from Come Out with Pride to Gay Games, according to the club’s website.
Video footage posted on social media showed wounded people being treated at the scene, shortly after 2 a.m.. The attacker was feared to be wearing a bomb, but all victims were killed with an assault rifle.
Police said on Twitter they had carried out a “controlled explosion” at the club hours after the shooting broke out, but did not say why that was done. They described the scene as a “fluid situation.” Twenty were initially reported dead, until police entered the club and found more bodies.
Video posted online showed a large number of police and emergency vehicles outside the nightclub. Bomb sniffing dogs were also on the scene, CNN reported.
The nightclub shooting occurred just a day after a man thought to be a deranged fan fatally shot Christina Grimmie, a rising singing star who gained fame on YouTube and as a contestant on “The Voice,” while she was signing autographs after a concert in Orlando.