ATLANTA: A 21-year-old gunman with a "sex addiction" was charged Wednesday with murdering eight people in spas around the US city of Atlanta, in triple attacks that have deeply shaken the Asian-American community.
Police said suspect Robert Aaron Long has denied a racist motive to Tuesday's attacks - in which six of the victims were women of Asian origin - but that they had yet to determine the shooter's reason for opening fire.
"The suspect did take responsibility for the shootings," Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office told a news conference.
Long, who is white, "does claim it was not racially motivated", Baker added, but stressed that "this is still early" in the investigation.
The suspect "apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction", Baker said.
Long told police he had frequented massage parlors in the past and launched the attacks as a form of vengeance - against "a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate".
With the probe ongoing into the gunman's motive, the attacks thrust the spotlight onto a spike in violence targeting Asian-Americans - fuelled during the COVID-19 pandemic, activists believe, by talk of the "Chinese virus" by former president Donald Trump and others.
"We have lost so many lives this past year. We have seen racism and discrimination and a surge of violence against Asian-Americans who are scapegoated because of the pandemic," Sam Park, a local representative of the Asian-American community, told AFP in Atlanta.
"It shocks the conscience," he said of the attacks, which drew reactions of outrage and solidarity from across the nation.
President Joe Biden, who spoke out last week against the spike in anti-Asian violence, once again called it "very troublesome" - while stressing that motivation in the Atlanta shootings had yet to be determined.
"I know that Asian-Americans are very concerned," said Biden.
EIGHT COUNTS OF MURDER
Tuesday's rampage began with an attack at Young's Asian Massage in Acworth, an Atlanta suburb, where four of the victims were killed and a man was wounded.
Police said four women were subsequently killed in attacks on two neighboring spas in the northeast of Atlanta.
In the initial attack, the county sheriff's department has charged Long with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.
He was also charged with four counts of murder relating to the double Atlanta attack, the city's police department announced.
Authorities arrested Long after tracking his phone following a brief pursuit about 240km from Atlanta, officials said.
After he was detained, "he made a comment ... that he was headed to Florida and that he was going to do similar acts in that state", Baker said, adding that Long wanted to target "some type of porn industry".
VIOLENCE IN THE US
Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Acworth, a normally quiet commuter community, had experienced few murders and Tuesday's violence was "a shock to all of us".
Adriana Mejia, niece of the wounded victim in the Acworth attack, said the family was "devastated" after her uncle was shot and that they were praying for his recovery.
"We never know when we're at the wrong place at the wrong time because this was so all of a sudden," she said.
Four of the victims were of Korean descent, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
Former president Barack Obama said on Twitter that while the shooter's motive was not yet clear, "the identity of the victims underscores an alarming rise in anti-Asian violence that must end".
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi likewise described the shootings as "a vicious and vile act that compound the fear and pain that Asian-Americans face each day".
And Vice President Kamala Harris said the mass shootings spoke "to a larger issue which is violence in our country".
The state of Georgia, which has Atlanta as its capital, is home to nearly 500,000 people of Asian origin, or just over 4 per cent of its population, according to the Asian American Advocacy Fund.
The shootings came the same day as the release of a report by the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate suggested a marked increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans - with women disproportionately affected.
In a tally of incidents reported to the group between March 2020 and February this year, almost 70 per cent of Asian-American survey respondents said they had faced verbal harassment and just over one in 10 said they had experienced physical assault.