A nine-year old girl is among the dead as a US Congresswoman was attacked tonight.
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head and a number of other people were injured when an assailant opened fire as the Democrat was meeting with constituents outside a shop in Tucson, Arizona, congressional officials said.
Giffords, 40, was said to be “following commands” but was under anaesthetic following surgery at the University Medical Centre (UMC) in Tucson.
US Capitol police say the gunman is in custody. He has been identified as Jared Laughner.
Peter Rhee, surgeon at the UMC, said: “We have 10 patients we have received at the current time period. One patient is dead here at the hospital. We have five patients in critical conditions, we have five patients in the operating room right now undergoing surgery.
“The congresswoman is not deceased, she’s in a critical condition, the neurosurgeons have finished operating on her and I can tell you at the current time period, I’m very optimistic about recovery.
“The person that did die here at the hospital was a young child. My understanding was that she was about nine years old.”
Congressional officials said that an aide to Ms Giffords was killed in the shooting. A US marshal, David Gonzales, said that district Judge John Roll also died in the attack.
A doctor at the hospital in Tucson said earlier: “She was shot one time in the head, through and through. It went through her brain.
“I’m about as optimistic as I can get in this situation. Surgery has been completed. She is under anaesthesia.”
The FBI and local law enforcement were investigating the attack, which took place while Ms Giffords was greeting constituents.
Chief of police Roberto Villasenor said: “We have secured the offices and residences of congresswoman Giffords. We did that as a precautionary measure, we had no information there was any threat.
“My understanding from the sheriff’s office is they do have one subject in custody.”
One official claimed that the attack was carried out with an automatic weapon.
Three hours after the shooting, the L-shaped shopping centre in Tucson was blocked off by police and had fire engines and other vehicles in its car park blocking the view of the store’s front door.
No shell casings could be seen from the area 500 yards from the store where reporters and photographers were kept.
Shortly before the shooting, Ms Giffords tweeted: “My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind or tweet me later.”
Mayor of Tucson Bob Walkup described the events as a “grave tragedy”.
He said he had spoken to Ms Giffords’s father, who is in a wheelchair.
“He wanted to be with his daughter, he wanted to know where was the operating room and we instructed police officers to escort him down to the operating room,” said Mayor Walkup.
“Her mother was here as well so the family is gathered, and the family is by her side.”
President Barack Obama called the shooting “an unspeakable tragedy” and that such “a senseless and terrible act of violence has no place in a free society”.
Commenting on the attack, newly elected House Speaker John Boehner said: “I am horrified by the senseless attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and members of her staff.
“An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society. Our prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords, her staff, all who were injured, and their families. This is a sad day for our country.”
The shooting came amid a highly charged political environment that has seen several dangerous threats against politicians but nothing that reached the point of actual violence.
A San Francisco man upset with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s support of healthcare reform pleaded guilty to threatening the Democratic congresswoman and her family, calling her directly on March 25 and threatening to destroy her northern California home if she voted for the reform.
Ms Giffords, a moderate Democrat, has herself drawn the ire of the right, especially for her support of the healthcare Bill.
Her Tucson office was vandalised a few hours after the House vote to approve the healthcare law in March, with someone either kicking or shooting out a glass door and window.
Ms Giffords was re-elected to her third term last November. She was a member of the Arizona House and Senate before coming to Washington.
She first won election to Congress amid a wave of Democratic victories in 2006. In November, she edged a tea party favourite.
Ms Giffords is married to astronaut Mark E Kelly, who has piloted space shuttles Endeavour and Discovery. The two met in China in 2003 while they were serving on a committee there, and were married in January 2007.