Skip to main content

British MP known for Syria activism killed in street shooting

Jo Cox, a 41-year-old Labour MP, shot three times and stabbed by an attacker who reportedly shouted 'Britain First'
A memorial for Jo Cox, the Labour MP shot dead on Thursday (AFP)

The brutal killing of a British MP, best known for her active campaigning on major issues such as Syria violence in the Middle East, has left the country reeling.

Jo Cox, a 41-year-old Labour MP, was shot three times and repeatedly stabbed in the village of Birstall in northern England.

According to witnesses the gunman allegedly shouted “Britain First”, a possible reference to a far-right group with that name, before running away from the scene. Police have since apprehended a suspect, identified as Thomas Mair believed to be in his late 40s or early 50s. Initial reports indicate that Mair may have had mental health issues, with him telling a local newspaper in 2010 that volunteering was helping him move past undisclosed issues, the Telegraph reported

Cox, a mother-of-two who entered Parliament in last year’s election, was taken to hospital but succumbed to her wounds hours later. Her death comes exactly a week before Britain is due to hold a referendum on whether or not to stay part of the European Union.

Cox was an avid campaigner for the so-called “Remain” camp which wants to see the UK remain a part of the 28-member bloc.

After the attack, the "Remain" camp said it was "suspending all campaigning for the day" while a spokesman for the rival Vote Leave group said their “battle bus” was returning to headquarters.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron led tributes, describing her as a "bright star, no doubt about it".

On a visit to Copenhagen, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: "It is an assault on everybody who cares about and has faith in democracy," he added.

Over parliament, the British flag flew at half-mast.

On Twitter, Cox described herself simply as: "Mum. Proud Yorkshire Lass. Labour MP for Batley and Spen. Boat dweller. Mountain climber. Former aid worker."

She was due to celebrate her 42nd birthday next Wednesday.

Her husband Brendan Cox was an adviser to prime minister Gordon Brown and they lived with children Lejla and Cuillin on a converted barge on the River Thames in London.

"Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it everyday of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people," her husband wrote.

"She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now: one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her."

At a vigil nearby, Cox's Labour colleagues gathered in silence for the MP.

"Hatred will never solve problems," party leader Jeremy Corbyn said at the commemoration.

Tearful mourners also gathered for an emotional vigil at St Peter's Church in Birstall, where a Union Jack flag was hung above the entrance.

Before joining Parliament, Cox enjoyed a long career with international development charities including Oxfam, experience which she used to “quickly earn a reputation as a first-class Labour MP after making a string of principled interventions on major issues such as Syria, violence in the Middle East and international development,” according to a statement on the Labour Party affiliated Labour List website.

Cox set up the Labour Party Parliamentary Friends of Syria group and became its chair. She abstained in a vote to bomb Syria last year but actively argued that British military forces could help to achieve an ethical solution to the conflict in Syria and called for no-fly zones to be enforced. 

The killing has sparked widespread outrage in Britain.

One witness, local cafe owner Clarke Rothwell, said that Cox had been shot three times while another told British media that the attacker repeatedly kicked her even as she lay on the ground bleeding.

"He shot this lady once and then he shot her again, he fell to the floor, leant over, shot her once more in the face area," Rothwell told the BBC.

Witnesses said that passers-by tried to surround the man and successfully stopped him from reloading the gun and shooting more people.

Shootings of this kind are extremely rare in the UK, which has tough anti-gun laws, although stabbings have become increasingly common in recent years.