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Netanyahu expresses grief as US synagogue attack leaves 11 dead

Israeli Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett will travel to Pittsburgh to meet members of Jewish community and participate in funerals
Police rapid response team on site of mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday expressed grief and solidarity with the US, after a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 11 people and wounding six others.

The shooter opened fire during a baby-naming ceremony, according to the Associated Press.

"I was heartbroken and appalled by the murderous attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue today," Netanyahu said in a video message. 

Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett said he was travelling to Pittsburgh to meet members of the Jewish community and participate in the funerals. "When Jews are murdered in Pittsburgh, the people of Israel feel pain," Reuters quoted him as saying in a statement.

I was heartbroken and appalled by the murderous attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue today

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Pittsburgh's public safety director, Wendell Hissrich, confirmed that 11 people were dead and six had been wounded, AFP said.

Four police officers who rushed to the scene were among the wounded.

The shooter will face federal charges that carry the death penalty, the US Justice Department said.

"Hatred and violence on the basis of religion can have no place in our society," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. "These alleged crimes are reprehensible and utterly repugnant to the values of this nation. Accordingly, the Department of Justice will file hate crimes and other criminal charges against the defendant, including charges that could lead to the death penalty."

Suspect in custody

Police said a suspect was in custody after the attack at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighbourhood.

Authorities confirmed that the suspect was Robert Bowers, whose actions Scott Brady, the US attorney for Pennsylvania's Western District, said "represent the worst of humanity". Brady said criminal charges may be filed as early as Saturday.

Before it was deleted on Saturday morning, a social media account believed to belong to Bowers was filled with anti-Jewish slurs and references to anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, the New York Times reported.

In January, an account under his name was created on Gab, a social network that bills itself as a free-speech haven, the Times said. The app, which grew out of claims of anti-conservative bias by Facebook and Twitter, is a popular gathering place for alt-right activists and white nationalists whose views are unwelcome on other social media platforms. Early members included the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website.

Shortly after Bowers was identified as the suspect in the shooting, Gab confirmed that the name on the account, which was verified, matched that of the suspect. The company archived the account before taking it offline, and released a statement saying it was cooperating with law enforcement, the New York Times said.

Pittsburgh city officials said the shooting was being investigated as a federal hate crime. It comes amid a rash of high-profile attacks in an increasingly divided country, including the series of pipe bombs mailed over the past week to prominent Democrats and former officials.

The shooting also immediately reignited the longstanding national debate about guns: President Donald Trump said synagogues and churches should have armed guards, while Pennsylvania's Democratic governor said that "dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm's way".

"It is a very horrific crime scene. It's one of the worst that I've seen, and I've been on some plane crashes," said a visibly moved Hissrich, the city's public safety director.

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Trump, who has been accused of fueling hate with divisive rhetoric, briefly considered scrapping his Illinois campaign rally on Saturday, but finally decided to maintain it.

Trump said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue "had some kind of protection" from an armed guard and suggested that might be a good idea for all churches and synagogues.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf called the shooting an "absolute tragedy" in a statement that made reference to calls for tighter gun control laws.

"We must all pray and hope for no more loss of life," Wolf said. "But we have been saying 'this one is too many' for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm's way."

Netanyahu said: "The entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the dead. We stand together with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. We stand together with the American people in the face of this horrendous anti-Semitic brutality. And we all pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded."

World Jewish Congress president Ronald S Lauder called the shooting "an attack not just on the Jewish community, but on America as a whole".