A member of the Colorado Springs sheriff's department secures the scene during situation outside a planned parenthood facility where an active shooter killed three and wounded several people. Photo: AFP / Justin Edmonds
By AFP, on eNCA
COLORADO SPRINGS - A gunman opened fire at a prominent family planning centre in Colorado, killing three people and wounding several in a standoff that dragged on for five hours before he surrendered on Friday.
A usually busy area of snow-covered Colorado Springs was placed on lockdown into the early evening, just a day after millions of Americans celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday, in the latest incident to shed a damning light on the United States' gun culture.
Mayor John Suthers paid tribute to police for hauling the gunman into custody without further bloodshed at the Planned Parenthood building, where people scrambled into a safe room in a desperate bid to save themselves.
A police officer was among the dead, he said, while nine others -- among them five police -- were wounded. None of the injured were in a serious condition.
"I want to convey to the loved ones of the victims: this is a terrible, terrible tragedy that occurred here in Colorado Springs today," Suthers told reporters.
"Obviously, we lost two civilian victims, we mourn the loss of a very brave police officer."
It was not immediately clear if Planned Parenthood -- a major women's health and family planning group -- had been specifically targeted.
Abortion is one of the services Planned Parenthood provides for women, and the association has become a lightning rod for criticism by social conservatives.
Those critics, many of whom seek to outlaw abortion in the United States, have accused Planned Parenthood of selling foetal organs and body parts for profit, and encouraging women to have abortions in order to expand such operations.
- Gunfire rings out -
Earlier, there had been fears that the unidentified gunman might have explosives with him, and police were carefully combing the scene after the siege, which came to an end when he surrendered.
Speaking at the scene before the tense standoff ended, police spokeswoman Lieutenant Catherine Buckley warned that the gunman had taken "items" and bags inside the building with him.
A number of people were inside the clinic at the time of the shooting, on what had been a regular working day at Planned Parenthood, a day after Thanksgiving.
Terrified people fled the building and rushed into the freezing open, some crying and pleading for help.
A sheriff's department SWAT team with at least one armoured vehicle and several ambulances had been on standby, as the freezing winter evening drew in.
The immediate vicinity was placed on lockdown and people were told to stay indoors.
Buckley said the shooter was armed with some kind of "long weapon" with a shoulder stock such as a rifle, and some witnesses reported hearing automatic fire.
The dead policeman was named as Garrett Swasey, a University of Colorado Colorado Springs officer who was on duty at the campus and had raced to the scene of the shooting.
- Specific target? -
Quan Hoang, the owner of a nearby nail salon, told CNN that when he heard the gunfire break out, he feared a robbery was underway at a bank in the shopping area, which would have been bustling with people looking to pick up a bargain in the Black Friday sales.
"And we see cops, SWAT, the bomb squad, a whole bunch of people just trying to take cover around the Planned Parenthood area," he said by telephone.
"An officer came back in and said, 'Is everyone safe?' We asked him questions and he said they've barricaded him inside the Planned Parenthood and he was shooting out from the windows."
A White House official said that President Barack Obama had been notified of the incident by his Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco.
Vicki Cowart, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains, said that her initial information was that none of her staff or patients had been killed or injured.
Cowart said that she did not believe the centre had been specifically targeted.
"We're very pleased that our own security systems were operating at top-notch," she told CNN. That included people rushing into a safe room.
"They were able to hunker down and some got out early throughout the afternoon, but those that didn't were in a safe spot," Cowart said.