Nation mourns victims of US campus gunman

Bells were set to toll in the United States on Friday marking a day of mourning for 32 students and teachers shot dead on a university campus by a deranged student.

The day of religious services and commemorations comes amid burning questions over how South Korea-born Cho Seung-Hui, who had been diagnosed with mental problems, was able to buy two guns and ammunition, and continue his studies unchecked at Virginia Tech.

”I ask that everyone in Virginia pause at noon on Friday to offer prayers of support for the victims, their families, and for all those affected by this tragedy,” Virginia state governor Tim Kaine said.

In bright sunshine early on Friday, residents emerged from their homes wearing the university’s trademark maroon-and-orange colours.

Stores have also reported heavy sales of gear such as football jerseys, T-shirts and pullovers bearing the school’s ”hokie” nickname.

”We are all Hokies now,” was the motto for the day, scrawled on posters in Virginia store fronts and memorial websites on the Internet.

Masses, prayers and memorial services were being planned around the country by the university’s alumni.

The governors of Georgia and Colorado have also urged churches to ring out their bells at noon local time.

The memorial day falls on the eighth anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, and one day after the 12th anniversary of the bombing of a government office building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168.

In a nation still healing from the September 11 2001 attacks, Monday’s killing spree at Virginia Tech was also written into the annals of US history becoming the country’s deadliest school shooting since the Columbine massacre.

In a ranting, hate-filled final manifesto sent to a US network, Cho made reference to the two Columbine killers who on April 20 1999 killed 12 classmates and a teacher before dying themselves.

Colleges and schools across the US have gone on heightened alert worried about copycat events.

Schools in Yuba, California, were locked down Thursday as police hunted a man claiming to be armed with an assault rifle and explosives, who threatened acts to make the Virginia Tech school massacre ”look mild” in comparison.

US media also reported other incidents involving schools and guns or bomb threats in Oregon, Washington and elsewhere. So far all the other incidents turned out to be false alarms.

In the search for answers to Monday’s carnage in Virginia, governor Kaine has set up an independent panel to investigate the massacre.

Fellow students and professors described Cho as a sullen loner and his violent writings and intimidating manner raised alarm bells among some professors long before the attacks.

He was committed to a mental institution in December 2005 after one of two stalking incidents, but was released the next day for outpatient treatment after he was deemed not to be a danger to others.

Then he appeared to have slipped through the cracks, returning to his studies.

In the videos recorded before his bloody spree and broadcast late on Wednesday on national television, a clearly unbalanced Cho brandished the murder weapons and painted himself as a long-suffering martyr like Jesus Christ.

Kaine said the panel would seek to discover ”everything we know” about Cho, including his dealings with the mental health system and the type of treatment he received.

The panel will also investigate the two-and-half-hour gap between the first shooting at a campus dormitory on Monday morning, in which two people were killed, and Cho’s rampage through a classroom complex where he killed 30 others and himself.

As the grief-stricken families struggle to come to terms with the tragedy and the sudden loss of sons and daughters, the first funerals of victims took place on Thursday.

In Israel, family members attended the burial of 76-year-old mathematics lecturer Liviu Librescu, hailed as a hero after dying while trying to protect his students.

The university’s small Indonesian community also gathered at Blacksburg’s McCoy funeral home to honour fallen colleague Partahi ”Mora” Lumbantoruan, an engineering doctoral student from Sumatra, Indonesia. — AFP



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Paul Handley
Paul Handley

Paul Handley is a former AFP bureau chief in Riyadh. He is currently the US security correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Washington DC, covering crime, justice and US politics. His reporting has appeared in Business Insider, New Zealand Herald, AlterNet, France 24, Yahoo, The New York Times, The Times South Africa, The Globe and Mail, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He is author of The King Never Smiles about the late Thai monarch.

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