Nine people have died in a shooting at an African-American in Charleston in the US state of South Carolina.

The gunman opened fire during a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at about 21:00 local time on Wednesday (01:00 GMT Thursday)

Eight people died in the scene, including the church’s pastor, state Senator Clementa Pinckney, with a ninth victim dying in hospital shortly afterwards.

A five-year-old child is reported to have survived the attack by “playing dead”, and a women that survived the attack is reported to have told her family that the gunman let her live so that she could report what happened.

Police had cleared the scene after reports of a bomb, but later gave the all clear after searching the area.

City police chief Gregory Mullen called the shooting a “hate crime”.

He continued:

“At this point, we have nine victims in this hideous crime. It is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives.”

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott tweeted:

“My heart is breaking for Charleston and South Carolina tonight.”

Police have released surveillance images of the suspect, who is described as a clean shaven white male in his 20s with a slender build and wearing a grey sweatshirt, blue jeans and Timberland boots. He was seen fleeing from the church in a black four-door saloon car, and police say they still believe him to be in the Charleston area.

The attack comes two months after racial tensions flared in the city after unarmed black man Walter Scott was shot and killed by a white police officer. The officer has since been charged with murder for his actions.

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