US President Barack Obama on Tuesday voiced solidarity with the LGBT community after the shooting rampage at a Orlando gay nightclub, calling the gunman an “angry, disturbed, unstable young man who became radicalized.”
Investigators were working to untangle the complicated motive of Omar Mateen, as witnesses said the 29-year-old American of Afghan descent -- who was married with a child -- frequented the popular nightspot and used gay dating apps.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the shooting in Orlando early Sunday. The FBI said Mateen pledged allegiance to the IS leader in 911 calls made during the killing spree -- the worst mass shooting in US history.
Forty-nine people were killed and another 53 wounded after Mateen opened fire early Sunday at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a resort city in central Florida mainly known as the home to Walt Disney World and other amusement parks.
After a meeting of his National Security Council, Obama said the country’s thoughts were with survivors and relatives of the dead, as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community “who were targeted.”
“You are not alone. The American people and our allies and friends all over the world stand with you,” Obama said.
He reiterated the official belief that Mateen -- a practicing Muslim -- had absorbed extremist propaganda online, noting: “He appears to have been an angry, disturbed, unstable young man who became radicalized.”
Obama will travel to Orlando on Thursday to pay his respects to victims’ families.
- Did his wife know about attack? -
MSNBC and ABC News, citing unnamed law enforcement officials, reported that Mateen’s wife may have had prior knowledge of her husband’s plan and could face criminal charges.
Noor Mateen, who is 30, was cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and claims she tried to convince her husband not to go through with the shooting, the networks said.
When asked about the reports, an FBI spokeswoman told AFP: “I wouldn’t confirm that. We are not going to talk about any ongoing matter or any parts of the investigations.”
- Club regular -
The investigation took a new turn after witnesses said Mateen -- who was killed in a shootout with police when they stormed the venue -- had been a regular at Pulse.
“Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent,” Ty Smith told the Orlando Sentinel, noting he had seen Mateen at the club at least a dozen times.
Another Pulse regular, Kevin West, told the Los Angeles Times that Mateen messaged him on and off for a year using a gay chat app.
Clubgoers told local media and MSNBC that Mateen had been using multiple gay apps, including Grindr, with mutual acquaintances to “hook up.”
And a man who attended law enforcement training classes with Mateen in 2006 told the Palm Beach Post that the slain gunman had once asked him out on a date.
“We went to a few gay bars with him, and I was not out at the time, so I declined his offer,” said the former classmate, who asked not to be identified to protect his privacy.
Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, who has said he beat her, told CNN on Monday that he had “confessed to me about his past that was recent at that time and that he very much enjoyed going to clubs and the nightlife.”
“I feel like it’s a side of him or a part of him that he lived but probably didn’t want everybody to know about,” she said.
- ‘I’m next. I’m dead’ -
Police have now identified all 49 victims, who ranged in age from 18 to 50. Of the 53 people wounded, 27 remained in hospital Tuesday, with six of them in critical condition, doctors at Orlando Regional Medical Center said.
Survivor Angel Colon, who suffered three bullet wounds to his leg, which was shattered as people trampled him to escape Pulse, offered a harrowing account of the carnage to reporters.
“I can hear the (gunshots) closer, and I look over and he shoots the girl next to me. And I’m just there laying down. I’m thinking, ‘I’m next. I’m dead’,” Colon said.
“And he’s just doing this for another five, ten minutes. He’s just shooting all over the place.”
The shooting hit Orlando’s Latino community hard -- the club was hosting a “Latin Night” when the attack occurred. Thousands joined a vigil late Monday.
- ‘Where does this stop?’ -
The slaughter has raised questions about US counterterror strategy -- the FBI said it had investigated Mateen but cleared him of extremist ties.
But in his noon press conference, a fiery Obama lashed out at Republicans, especially presidential hopeful Donald Trump, for anti-Muslim rhetoric that he said was counterproductive to the fight on extremism.
“Where does this stop? The Orlando killer, one of the San Bernardino killers, the Fort Hood killer -- they were all US citizens,” he said.
“Are we going to start treating all Muslim Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith?”
The rampage has also raised questions about gun laws. Mateen legally bought the assault rifle and handgun used in the attack.
Obama has demanded that the Republican-controlled Congress pass legislation to curb the sale of assault-type weapons like the one used in Orlando -- a measure that conservatives say violates their constitutional right to bear arms.