An elderly white supremacist with a history of anti-Semitic tirades opened fire Wednesday inside the Holocaust Memorial Museum, fatally wounding a security guard before being shot himself.
Tourists scattered in panic, ducked and took cover as the shots rang out in the museum's crowded entrance shortly after noon in the heart of the US capital, not far from the White House.
The attack drew reactions of shock and sadness from President Barack Obama and other US leaders, Israel, and a US Muslim organization.
The gunman was identified as James von Brunn, 88, a Maryland resident who has done time in prison for taking a gun into the US Federal Reserve in an apparently botched anti-Semitic attack, a federal law enforcement official told AFP.
"It appears to be a lone gunman who entered into the museum and opened fire with what appears to be a rifle at this point," Police Chief Cathy Lanier said.
Security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, of nearby Maryland state, was pronounced dead after being rushed to a nearby hospital, police said. The gunman was in critical condition, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty added.
Obama -- who last week became the first US president to visit the Nazi death camp in Buchenwald, Germany -- expressed dismay, saying the incident underscored the need to counter prejudice.
"I am shocked and saddened by today's shooting at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms," he said in a statement.
The Holocaust-denying Von Brunn has written books on Adolf Hitler and his views on white superiority, including "Kill the Best Gentiles," which his website calls "the culmination of his life's work."
In a recent posting on his blog, he railed that "America is a Third-World racial garbage-dump -- stupid, ignorant, dead-broke, and terminal."
Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation said they had no warning of the attack, which erupted at 12:50 pm just inside the packed museum, which is often visited by school groups.
The FBI said it had sent a special response squad to support the police, but it had no information "to indicate threats to area landmarks."
"An armed gunman came into the entrance and immediately opened fire striking one
security guard. There was fire, gunfire returned. The gunman was hit," Fenty said.
Former defense secretary William Cohen said he was standing outside with a museum official when the gunman entered, apparently from a red vehicle left parked in the street.
"When the shots rang out, we just ducked down and scattered," Cohen said. "So we ran up the stairs. We didn't know how many shooters were there, how many shots were going to continue, how many people were involved."
Cohen had been at the museum because a play written by his wife Janet Langhart Cohen was to be staged there Wednesday evening.
Angela Andelson, 22, visiting from San Francisco, was walking toward the museum's exit when she heard a loud bang "like someone had dropped something."
Then she saw a "gunman coming in (carrying) a long looking kind of gun.
"I just ran in to one of the exhibits to try to take cover," she said.
"People were screaming and ducking down, getting on the floor, getting under benches."
Another witness, Maria Hernandez, was with her grandparents walking through the haunting exhibits which chronicle the Holocaust and the genocide of six million Jews under the Nazis.
"We were in the exhibit 'Remember the Children´ and we heard rounds fired and through the glass doors I saw a security guard firing towards the shooter and a man on his belly on the floor and when I looked back again, we were heading toward the exit, I saw blood all over the floor," she told AFP.
Israel said through its embassy that it was "shocked and saddened by today's shooting incident."
The Muslim Public Affairs Council swiftly condemned what it called a "hate-motivated shooting."
"Tragic incidents like this one only strengthen our commitment to combatting intolerance in all forms through education and dialogue," MPAC executive director Salam Al-Marayati said.
More than 30 million people have visited the museum since it opened in 1993, including 85 heads of state. Obama last week became the first US president to visit the Nazi death camp in Buchenwald, Germany, where he renewed a historic commitment to Israel.