A gunman killed 50 people and injured 53 in a crowded gay nightclub in the tourist hub of Orlando, Florida, early on Sunday before being shot dead by police, authorities said, in what appeared the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer confirmed the death toll in a statement and called for a state of emergency.
"We are dealing with something we never imagined. Since the last update, we have gotten better access to the building, cleared the building. It is with great sadness I share that we have 50 casualties, in addition to the shooter. Because of the scale I have called Governor Scott to request a state of emergency and we are issuing a state of emergency in the City. This allows us to bring additional resources to support our efforts. Our focus in the coming hours will be identifying the victims and notifying the families. We are setting up a hotline for concerned family members – 407.246.4357. The identification process may take some time. We ask for your patience as we want to be accurate. I continue to be proud of how our community has responded." Dyer said.
The shooter was identified as Omar S. Mateen, a man that a senior FBI official said might have had leanings towards Islamic State militants. Officials described the attack as a "terrorism incident" though cautioned that the suspected Islamist connection required further investigation.
A police officer working as a security guard inside the Pulse nightclub, which has operated in downtown Orlando since 2004, exchanged fire with the suspect at about 2 a.m. (0600 GMT), police officials said.
A hostage situation quickly developed, and three hours later a squad of officers stormed the club and shot dead the gunman. It was unclear when the gunman shot the victims.
"Do we consider this an act of terrorism? Absolutely, we are investigating this from all parties' perspective as an act of terrorism," said Danny Banks, special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "Whether that is domestic terrorist activity or an international one, that is something we will certainly get to the bottom of."
When asked if the FBI suspected the gunman might have had inclinations toward militant Islam, including a possible sympathy for Islamic State, Ronald Hopper, an assistant FBI agent in charge, told reporters: "We do have suggestions that the individual may have leanings toward that particular ideology. But right now we can't say definitively."
The FBI said it was still trying to pin down whether the mass shooting was a hate crime against gays or a terrorist act.
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.
The attacker was carrying an assault rifle and a handgun, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said. He was also carrying an unidentified "device", Orlando Police Chief John Mina said earlier.
The suspect's father tells NBC NEWS his son was not motivated by region but was "angry" when he saw two men kissing in Miami.
"We were in Downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music. And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry," Mir Seddique, told NBC News on Sunday. "They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said, 'Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.' And then we were in the men's bathroom and men were kissing each other."
Source: City of Orlando-Your Government/Reuters/NBC