A car has slammed into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally in the Virginia town of Charlottesville, killing one person and sending at least 26 others to hospital.
The horrific incident came after 24 hours of protests and counter-protests prompted by the city council’s decision to change the name of Robert E. Lee Park and remove a statue of the Confederate military commander.
The night before several hundred of torch-bearing white nationalists marched brazenly through the centre of the college town.
But by Saturday morning opposition protesters had arrived on the scene, with commentators saying many were from out of town and had been bussed in overnight.
Caught largely unaware of the antagonists willingness to bring violence to the disputed park in the centre of town, police in full riot gear took several hours before they could place themselves between the combatants.
Before then and after, sporadic violence erupted all over town.
The white nationalists, many carrying heavy sticks and homemade shields, were pelted with rocks and bottles, with fist fights breaking out as Black Lives Matter activists and other social justice groups tried to seize Confederate flags.
Authorities and reporters alike reported that some white nationalists were openly displaying pistols and, in one unconfirmed report, an assault rifle.
Then, early in the afternoon, a grey sedan sped down a narrow street and into the heart of anti-racism protesters gathered at a downtown intersection.
The driver of the car has been taken into custody, USA Today reported, citing the state’s secretary of public safety.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and sent in the National Guard while Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said on Twitter he was “heartbroken” by the violence and blamed President Donald Trump for creating the poisonous atmosphere.
Police have charged a 20-year-old Ohio man, James Alex Fields Jr, with second-degree murder three counts of malicious wounding, and one count related to leaving the scene.
Authorities said Fields’ alleged victim, whose name has not yet been released, was 32 years old.
In a related incident, two police officers also died when a helicopter that had been providing airborne surveillance of the rolling melee crashed about outside Charlottesville.
US President Donald Trump told reporters at his New Jersey golf course his team was “closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville”.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” he said.
“We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together.
“What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives,” Trump said. “No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society.”
“No matter our color, creed, religion, or political party, we are all Americans first. We love our country, we love our God, we love our flag, we’re proud of our country. We’re proud of who we are,” said the president.
A reporter shouted a question to Mr Trump about whether he had spoken out strongly enough against white nationalists but the President made no further comment.
Mr Trump earlier responded to the violent rallies on Twitter, saying there was “no place for this kind of violence in America”.
First Lady Melania Trump earlier also expressed her concern, calling for communication without “hate in our hearts”.
Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler had called for what he termed a “pro-white” rally to protest the city of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee from a downtown park.
It is the latest confrontation in Charlottesville since the city voted earlier this year to remove the statue.
In May, a torch-wielding group that included prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer gathered around the statue for a night-time protest.
In July, about 50 members of a North Carolina-based KKK group travelled there for a rally, where they were met by hundreds of counter-protesters.
Mr Kessler said this week the rally was partly about the removal of Confederate symbols but also about free speech and “advocating for white people.”
“This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do,” he said in an interview.
Mr Signer said he was disgusted white nationalists had come to his town and blamed Mr Trump for inflaming racial prejudices with his campaign last year.
“I’m not going to make any bones about it,” he said.
“I place the blame for a lot of what you’re seeing in American today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the President.”
Officials have been preparing for the rally for months. Virginia State Police will be assisting local authorities, and a spokesman said the Virginia National Guard “will closely monitor the situation and will be able to rapidly respond and provide additional assistance if needed”.
Police instituted road closures around the downtown area, and many businesses in the popular open-air shopping mall opted to close for the day.
Both local hospitals said they had taken precautions to prepare for an influx of patients and had extra staff on call.
– with AP and ABC