By PIETRO DE CRISTOFARO and GEIR MOULSON, The Associated Press
HAMBURG, Germany (AP) — A shooting at a Jehovah’s Witnesses hall in the German city of Hamburg left eight people dead, apparently including the perpetrator, police said Friday. An unspecified number of other people were wounded, some of them seriously.
There was no word on a possible motive for Thursday night’s attack, which stunned Germany’s second-biggest city. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a former Hamburg mayor, described it as “a brutal act of violence.”
A spokesperson for Scholz, Christiane Hoffmann, referred to it as a “shooting rampage” rather than a suspected terrorist attack.
“The suspected perpetrator shot at several people during an event held by the congregation,” she told reporters in Berlin. “Our thoughts in these difficult hours are with the relatives, families and friends of the victims and with those who were wounded by this act. We wish the wounded a swift recovery.”
Police said earlier that they believed there was only one shooter, and that the person could be among the dead.
Officers apparently reached the hall while the attack was ongoing — and heard one more shot after they arrived, according to witnesses and authorities. They did not use their own firearms, a police spokesman said.
The head of Germany’s GdP police union in Hamburg, Horst Niens, said he was convinced that the swift arrival of a special operations unit “distracted the perpetrator and may have prevented further victims.”
Germany’s gun laws are more restrictive than those in the United States, but permissive compared with some European neighbors, and shootings are not unheard of.
The German government announced plans last year to crack down on gun ownership by suspected extremists and to tighten background checks. Currently, anyone wanting to acquire a firearm must show that they are suited to do so, including by proving that they require a gun. Reasons can include being part of a sports shooting club or being a hunter.
Asked about a possible political response to the shooting, a spokesperson for Germany’s Interior Ministry, Maximilian Kall, said it was necessary to wait for the results of the investigations before drawing conclusions.
On Friday morning, forensic investigators in protective white suits could be seen outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall, a boxy, three-story building next to an auto repair shop, a few miles from downtown Hamburg. As a light snow fell, officers placed yellow cones on the ground and windowsills to mark evidence.
David Semonian, a U.S.-based spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said in an emailed statement early Friday that members “worldwide grieve for the victims of this traumatic event.”
“The congregation elders in the local area are providing pastoral care for those affected by the event,” he wrote.
Police spokesman Holger Vehren said police were alerted to the shooting Thursday night and were at the scene quickly.
He said that the officers found people with apparent gunshot wounds on the ground floor, and then heard a shot from an upper floor, where they found a fatally wounded person who may have been a shooter.
Gregor Miebach, who lives within sight of the building, told German television news agency NonstopNews that he heard at least 25 shots. After police arrived, one last shot followed, he said.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are part of an international church, founded in the United States in the 19th century and headquartered in Warwick, New York. It claims a worldwide membership of about 8.7 million, with about 170,000 in Germany.
Members are known for their evangelistic efforts that include knocking on doors and distributing literature in public squares. The denomination’s practices include a refusal to bear arms, receive blood transfusions, salute a national flag or participate in secular government.
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