A gunman opened fire and killed at least eight people at a Jehovah’s Witnesses centre in the German city of Hamburg.
An unspecified number of others were wounded, some seriously, on Thursday evening in the attack that stunned Germany’s second-biggest city. Police gave the casualty figure on its website, and there was still no word on a possible motive.
“According to the current state of affairs, we assume that there is one perpetrator,” police said in a message on Twitter. “Police activities in the surrounding area are being successively discontinued. Investigations into the motives behind the crime are continuing.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a former Hamburg mayor, described the shooting as “a brutal act of violence”.
Police officials said during the night they believe there was only one shooter, and this could be a person who was found dead in the building.
Investigators worked through the night to secure evidence. On Friday morning, forensic investigators in protective white suits could still be seen outside the building as light snow fell. Officers placed yellow cones on the ground and windowsills to mark evidence.
Hamburg officials said there would be a news conference on Friday afternoon to discuss details.
Police have asked witnesses to come forward and upload any pictures or videos they may have to a special website.
Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said investigators were “working flat-out to determine the background” to the attack.
News weekly Der Spiegel reported the suspected attacker was a former member of the Jehovah’s Witness community who was not known to police as dangerous. The magazine, which did not cite its sources, described him as a man aged 30-40 and said he had been armed with a handgun.
‘A shot from above’
A video, posted online by the Bild newspaper, showed a person firing multiple shots into the building through a first-floor window before the lights inside the room went out.
Germany’s dpa news agency, citing a reporter on the scene, reported residents in the city’s northern Alsterdorf district received warnings on their mobile phones of a “life-threatening situation”.
Television footage showed dozens of police cars as well as fire engines blocking streets and some people wrapped in blankets being led by emergency service workers into a bus.
Police said they received an emergency call soon after 9pm (20:00 GMT) and officers arrived at the scene to find several people seriously wounded and some dead.
“Then they heard a shot from above. They went upstairs and found one further person,” said a police spokesperson.
Student Laura Bauch, who lives nearby, said “there were about four periods of shooting”.
“There were always several shots in these periods, roughly at intervals of 20 seconds to a minute,” Bauch said, adding she looked out her window and saw a person running from the ground floor to the second floor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses hall.
Gregor Miesbach, who lives within sight of the building, was alerted by the sound of shots and filmed a figure entering through a window. He said shots could then be heard from inside, adding the figure later emerged from the hall, was seen in the courtyard, and then fired more shots inside.
Miesbach told German television news agency NonstopNews he heard at least 25 shots. After police arrived, one last shot followed about five minutes later, he said.
The mayor of Hamburg expressed shock at Thursday’s bloodshed.
“I extend my deepest sympathy to the families of the victims. The forces are working at full speed to pursue the perpetrators and clarify the background,” Peter Tschentscher said on Twitter.
‘Appreciate the courageous help’
Germany has been shaken by a number of shootings in the last few years. In February 2020, a gunman with suspected far-right links shot dead nine people, including refugees from Turkey, in the western town of Hanau before killing himself and his mother.
In October 2019, a gunman killed two people when he opened fire outside a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.
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 distinctive practices include a refusal to bear arms, receive blood transfusions, salute a national flag, or participate in secular government.
David Semonian, a US-based spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said in a statement early on 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. “We understand that the authorities are still investigating the details of this crime. We appreciate the courageous help provided by the police and emergency services.”