CHARLOTTESVILLE (AFP) – A white nationalist rally erupted into deadly violence on Saturday when a car ploughed into a crowd while demonstrators and counter-protesters clashed, as US President Donald Trump came under sharp criticism for his tepid response.
The FBI and federal prosecutors have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident that killed one woman and wounded 19 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
After Mr Trump was faulted by fellow Republicans for his apparent refusal to criticise far-right hate groups, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said “when such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated”.
“Justice will prevail,” the top law enforcement official in the country added.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe had already declared a state of emergency to provide more resources to law enforcement when a sedan surged into a crowd of what witnesses said were counter-demonstrators in the picturesque university town.
Some of the injuries from the car ramming were life-threatening. A 20-year-old from Ohio, James Alex Fields Jr, has been charged with second-degree murder, malicious wounding and hit-and-run.
Two responding police officers were also killed in a helicopter crash. There was no immediate indication of foul play.
Another 16 people were treated for other injuries linked to the rally, including from “individual engagements”, Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas said. Three people were arrested and charged.
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 Mr Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and others in riot gear with shields and batons, faced off against counter-protesters as each side hurled projectiles before overwhelming police officers positioned between them.
State police swooped in with tear gas as one counter-protester who was repeatedly pummelled 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”.
Ambulances quickly arrived at the scene of the car ramming, which a witness said was “intentional”
– saying one girl got “tore up” after the car “backed up and they hit again”.
The suspect’s mother, Samantha Bloom, told the Toledo Blade newspaper from Ohio that her son said last week he was planning to attend the “alt-right” rally in Virginia, but she insisted she was unaware of its extremist nature.
“I told him to be careful,” Ms Bloom said. “[And] if they’re going to rally, to make sure he’s doing it peacefully.”
Mr Trump said “we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides”.
Critics focused on the president apparently equating the violence of white supremacist protesters with that of anti-fascist activists.
The president stopped short of condemning white nationalist and supremacist groups, which
broadly supported Mr Trump in last year’s election.
David Duke, a former “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan who had been a key figure at the rally, urged Mr Trump to “remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists”.
The president was quickly criticised by liberals and prominent Republicans. Senator Ted Cruz, who lost a campaign to become the Republican presidential nominee, called on the justice department to investigate and prosecute the incident as an “act of domestic terrorism”.
“Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists,” Florida Senator Marco