US shooting: Police treating it as act of domestic terror

New York: In what is being described as an "act of domestic terrorism," a gunman opened fire inside a Gurudwara in Wisconsin as the congregation was making preparations for Sunday morning prayers, killing at least six people and critically injuring three others.

The tragic incident unfolded at around 10:30 pm yesterday as members of the Sikh community were gathering in the 17,000 sq ft Gurudwara in Milwaukee`s Oak Creek suburb.

The unidentified gunman walked into the Gurudwara where he opened indiscriminate firing, killing six people. The gunman was also shot and killed by a police officer who also sustained serious injuries.

Police said there were a large number of women and children and the women were preparing meals to be served after the traditional prayer ceremony.

Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards said the police is "treating the incident as a domestic terrorist-type incident."

The FBI will oversee the criminal investigation. Edwards said there were "numerous individual deceased" and "multiple injured."

President Barack Obama offered his condolences to the victims of the shooting and said that his Administration will provide whatever support is necessary to the officials who are responding to this tragic shooting and moving forward with an investigation.

"Michelle and I were deeply saddened to learn of the shooting that tragically took so many lives in Wisconsin," Obama said in a statement.

"As we mourn this loss which took place at a house of worship, we are reminded how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs, who are a part of our broader American family," Obama said.

FBI Milwaukee Special Agent in Charge Teresa Carlson said the agency is working closely with the Oak Creek Police Department and other local and federal agencies to investigate the shooting incident.

"While the FBI is investigating whether this matter might be an act of domestic terrorism, no motive has been determined at this time," Carlson said adding that the investigation in still its early stages.

"We know our community has been deeply impacted by this incident, and our thoughts are with those affected and particularly with the officer who was wounded in the line of duty to protect others."

Edwards said the shooter was among the three people who were found dead outside the Gurudwara while four people were dead inside the building.

The police has not yet released the identity of the gunman who has been described by eyewitnesses as a white bald man with a heavy build. No other suspect is in custody, police said.

Officials have also not given out the number of people who could have been inside the Gurudwara during the incident.

The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reported that a team of law enforcement officer surrounded a duplex in Cudahy. Authorities cordoned off the area and the neighbourhood was being evacuated.

Eyewitnesses and friends of those inside the Gurudwara said several women and children hid inside closets. After nearly seven hours of rescue efforts, law enforcement agents cleared the Gurudwara.

Initial confusion over the incident led the police to believe that there was more than one gunman but later Edwards said the "the best information we have is that there was only one gunman."

Law enforcement officials had methodically searched the area for any other person who could have been involved in the shooting, police said.

Lee Biblo, Chief Medical Officer at the Froedhert Hospital said three people, including the injured police officer, were brought to the hospital in critical condition.

He said other people who were injured in the shooting were taken to other hospitals. The police officer suffered multiple gun shot wounds but is expected to recover.

Police have recovered "weapons" on the scene that likely include two semi-automatic handguns. Crime scene technicians would begin scanning the area and an extensive investigation has been launched into the incident.

While the names of the victims have not been released, the Sentinel Journal quoted a dentist Manminder Sethi as saying that a priest at the temple Parkash Singh was among those killed.

In response to the shooting, the police in New York have increased security at Sikh temples in the city. "There is no known threat against Sikh temples in New York City; however, the coverage is being put in place out of an abundance of caution," the New York police said in a statement.

Police described the scene at the Gurudwara as a chaotic one with shocked people crying and trying to get in touch with their friends and families.

The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel said among those who were shot at was the president of the temple, Satwant Kaleka, who was taken to the Froedtert Hospital.

Kaleka`s sister in law Parminder Kaleka said she heard that about 20-25 people had been injured.

One of the temple`s committee members, Ven Boba Ri, said based on communication with people inside the temple, the shooter was a white male in his 30s. "We have no idea," he said of the motive. "It`s pretty much a hate crime. It`s not an insider."

The head priest of the temple was also reportedly locked inside a restroom with a cell phone.

Darshan Dhaliwal, who identified himself as a leader at the temple, said between 20 and 25 women who were cooking a lunch in the basement for after the service.

Gulpreet Kaur said her mother was inside the kitchen when the shooting started. She took refuge inside a pantry with about 15 people. "Two bullets passed by on either side of her, her friend was hit in the foot," said Kaur, 24, who grew up in Oak Creek.

Kaur said her mother was traumatised by what happened. She was injured in the foot from gun shrapnel.

Parminder Toor, 54, and other women also were in the kitchen, cooking at the time of the attack. She said an 8 and 10-year-old kid ran inside the kitchen and said there was shooting. They all ran into a pantry, where they and 16 other people hid for over 2 hours. The women could smell the oil burning as they continued to hide from the gunman.

Inter-faith groups have condemned the shooting, describing it as a "senseless" act of violence on religious freedom, asking the Obama administration to take steps to ensure prevention of hate crimes against religious minorities in the country.

Shocked and deeply saddened by the senseless shooting, the World Sikh Council – America Region (WSC-AR) urged all to pray for the victims, their families and friends, and the surrounding community.