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Witnesses speak out after nationalist protest leads to deadly violence in Charlottesville

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Brian M Rosenthal

Published: August 13 2017 - 7:28PM

Charlottesville: The US city of Charlottesville, Virginia, was engulfed by violence as white nationalists and counter-protesters clashed in one of the bloodiest fights to date over the removal of Confederate monuments across the South.

White nationalists had long planned a demonstration over the city's decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. But the rally exploded into racial taunting, shoving and outright brawling, prompting the Governor to declare a state of emergency and the National Guard to join police in clearing the area.

Those skirmishes mostly resulted in cuts and bruises. But after the rally at a city park was dispersed, a car bearing Ohio licence plates ploughed into a crowd near the city's downtown mall, killing a 32-year-old woman, who has been named by media outlets as Heather Heyer.

About 34 others were injured; at least 19 in the crash, a spokeswoman for the University of Virginia Medical Centre said.

The police said that the driver was arrested after fleeing.

Martin Kumer, the superintendent of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, confirmed that James Alex Fields jnr, 20, of Maumee, Ohio, had been charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at the scene of an accident that resulted in a death.

But the authorities declined to say publicly that Fields was the driver of the car that ploughed into the crowd.

Witnesses crash said a grey sports car accelerated into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, who were moving jubilantly near the mall after the white nationalists had left, hurling at least two people in the air.

"It was probably the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life," said Robert Armengol, who was reporting for a podcast. "After that it was pandemonium. The car hit reverse and sped, and everybody who was up the street in my direction started running."

A former New Zealand professional rugby player helped US police catch Fields.

Chris Mahony, now an adviser for the World Bank in Washington, DC, said he noticed a grey sports car suspiciously stopped a small distance away from a group of people protesting against the white supremacists.

"I thought that was a bit strange," Mahony, 36, told CNN. "Of course, moments later we heard a car going incredibly fast down the road and saw it plough into the crowd."

Video shot by bystanders showed the car accelerating and smashing into the crowd and another vehicle, and then rapidly reversing in an attempt to escape.

Mahony, who played rugby for Auckland in the Air New Zealand Cup and for Oxford University, said he sprinted after the car to take photos to identify it and also alert police.

He saw a police officer and told him: "That car just ploughed into a whole lot of people."

The police officer immediately radioed the information to other officers and the driver was arrested.

"He said, 'We are on it. Quickly take me to where this happened,' " Mahony said.

Mahony was among the counter-demonstrators.

"You had a high level of antagonism," he said. "It wasn't necessarily peaceful. 

"You had people literally in military fatigues walking around so that is an incredibly intimidating environment."

He was sickened when he saw the car crash into the crowd.

Two members of the Virginia State Police, who were helping law enforcement, died when their helicopter crashed near a golf course in Charlottesville and burst into flames.

They were identified as Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, 48, of Midlothian, Virginia, and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton, Virginia. 

The planned rally was promoted as "Unite the Right" and both its organisers and critics said they expected it to be one of the largest gatherings of white nationalists in recent times, attracting groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis and movement leaders such as David Duke and Richard Spencer.

Many of these groups have felt emboldened since the election of Donald Trump as President. Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, told reporters on Saturday that the protesters were "going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump" to "take our country back".

Trump condemned the protests, but he did not specifically criticise the white nationalist rally and its neo-Nazi slogans beyond blaming "hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides".

The New York Times with AAP

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