A man reported to be a former Jehovah’s Witness went on a killing spree at a hall belonging to the congregation in Hamburg, before killing himself after police arrived, German officials say.
Seven people were killed inside a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including an unborn child, police said - although they did not clarify whether the baby’s mother was killed. The gunman is also believed to be among the dead. Eight others were hurt, including four seriously.
Hamburg’s top security official, state interior minister Andy Grote said officers arrived minutes after receiving the first emergency call at 9.04pm. A nearby special operations unit reached the site at 9.09pm and was able to separate the gunman from the congregation, he said.
“We can assume that they saved many people’s lives this way,” he told reporters during a press conference. Mr Grote called the shooting “the worst crime that our city has experience recently”.
Police spokesman Holger Vehren said officers called to the hall 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 believed to have been the gunman.
Officials said he was a 35-year-old German national identified only as Philipp F - in line with German privacy rules. He fired more than 100 rounds during the attack.
Hamburg police chief Ralf Martin Meyer said the man had a weapons licence and legally owned a semi-automatic pistol. He was previously investigated after authorities received a tip he might not be suitable to bear firearms, but was found not to have broken any rules.
Police did not use their own firearms in stopping the gunman, a police spokesman said. There was no immediate indication of a possible motive for Thursday night’s attack in Germany’s second-largest city, but prosecutors said there was no evidence of a terrorist link. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a former Hamburg mayor, described it as “a brutal act of violence”.
The head of Germany’s GdP police union in Hamburg, Horst Niens, said he is convinced the swift arrival of a special operations unit “distracted the perpetrator and may have prevented further victims”.
On Friday morning, forensic investigators in protective white suits could be seen outside the Kingdom Hall, a three-storey building next to a car repair shop, a few miles from Hamburg's city centre. As light snow fell, officers placed yellow cones on the ground and windowsills to mark evidence.
David Semonian, a US-based spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said in an emailed statement early on Friday that members “worldwide grieve for the victims of this traumatic event”. He added: “The congregation elders in the local area are providing pastoral care for those affected by the event."
Gregor Miesbach, who lives within sight of the building, was alerted by the sound of shots and filmed a figure entering the building through a window. Shots can then be heard from inside. The figure later apparently emerges from the hall, is seen in the courtyard and then fires more shots inside.
Mr Miesbach told German television news agency NonstopNews that he heard at least 25 shots and after police arrived, one last shot followed about five minutes later, he said.
Police had no information on the event that was underway in the building when the shooting took place, with Mr Vehren saying that “the background is still completely unclear”.
Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher tweeted that the news was “shocking” and offered his sympathy to the victims’ relatives.
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.