Car ramming, helicopter crash claim 3 lives at US far-right rally

 13 Aug 2017 - 5:59

Car ramming, helicopter crash claim 3 lives at US far-right rally
The cause of helicopter crash, which occurred was under investigation, Police said. (AFP)

AFP

Charlottesville, United States: A white nationalists' rally erupted into deadly violence Saturday as a car plowed into a crowd while demonstrators and counter-protesters clashed, spurring President Donald Trump to condemn "hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides."

But as the death toll linked to the rally rose to three -- one in the car crash and two in a helicopter crash outside Charlottesville -- the president's apparent refusal to criticize far-right hate groups sparked sharp criticism, even from members of his Republican Party.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe had already declared a state of emergency when a dark sedan surged into a crowd of what witnesses said was counter-demonstrators in the picturesque university city of Charlottesville.

A 32-year-old woman was killed and 19 were hurt in the ramming, police said, with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening.

Another 16 people were treated for other injuries linked to the rally, including from "individual engagements," Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas said.

The cause of the helicopter crash, which occurred in a nearby wooded area, was under investigation, Virginia State Police said.

Authorities did not say how the crash was linked to the violence in Charlottesville, through it appeared state police were onboard, as Trump tweeted his "deepest condolences to the families & fellow officers of the VA State Police who died today."

He later added: "Condolences to the family of the young woman killed today, and best regards to all of those injured, in Charlottesville, Virginia. So sad!"

Police overwhelmed 

Hundreds had descended on Charlottesville either to march in or rail against a "Unite the Right Rally." Unrest quickly flared even as riot police and national guard troops flooded the city's downtown.

White far-right supporters, some wearing hats with Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan and others in riot gear with shields and batons, faced off against counter-protestors as each side hurled projectiles at each other before overwhelming the police positioned between them.

State police swooped in with tear gas as one counter-protestor who was repeatedly pummeled with sticks and a metal pole was left bleeding profusely.

Many of the far-right supporters brandished Confederate battle flags, considered a symbol of racism by many Americans, while others raised their arms in Nazi salutes.

Anti-racism protesters waved flags from the Black Lives Matter movement, chanting slogans like "We say no to racist fear" and "No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA."

Ambulances quickly arrived at the scene of the car ramming, which a witness told AFP was "intentional" -- saying one girl got "tore up" after the car "backed up and they hit again."

He said the dark sedan "raced down here, jumped over the speed bumps and it backed up and it hit everyone again."

The male driver was taken into custody and police were treating the incident as a "criminal homicide," the police chief said.

Trump, speaking from his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, said the hatred that erupted Saturday has existed in America for "a long, long time."

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides," he said. "It has no place in America."

"The hate and the division must stop, and must stop right now."

'Terror attack' 

But the president stopped short of condemning white nationalist and supremacist groups, and ignored shouted questions from journalists about the groups, which broadly supported Trump in last year's election.

He was quickly criticized by liberals such as his 2016 election opponent Hillary Clinton, who did not name Trump but tweeted that "Every minute we allow this to persist through tacit encouragement or inaction is a disgrace, & corrosive to our values."

But a few prominent Republicans piled on and were more direct in their criticism.

"Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists," Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted.

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Republican senator in US history, tweeted that "We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home."

The planned rally never got officially underway, as McAuliffe declared a state of emergency saying authorities could not safeguard public safety. Authorities began clearing Emancipation Park after declaring those gathered there to be part of an "unlawful assembly." 

McAuliffe said he was "disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence these protesters have brought to our state over the past 24 hours."

After Trump criticized the violence and hatred on display, David Duke, a former "grand wizard" of the Ku Klux Klan who had been a key figure at the rally, retorted on Twitter that "I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists."

Saturday's far-right rally follows a much smaller demonstration last month that saw a few dozen Ku Klux Klan-linked marchers gather to protest Charlottesville's planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, who led Confederate forces in the US Civil War. 

This time, the extreme right brought in big names of the "alt-right" movement -- which has been emboldened, critics say, by Trump's ascent to the White House -- in a bid to attract more supporters.