Bells ring across Czech Republic to mourn victims of mass shooting

PRAGUE (Reuters) – Bells rang across the Czech Republic on Saturday and flags flew at half mast as the country mourned victims of the country’s worst mass shooting that killed 14 at a Prague university on Thursday.

Archbishop Jan Graubner served a mass at the main St. Vitus cathedral at the Prague Castle and the country observed a minute of silence at noon, with people stopping in streets amid heavy rain and snow, and in malls during Christmas shopping.

A 24-year old student went on a shooting rampage at the Charles University’s Faculty of Arts in downtown Prague on Thursday, killing students and lecturers before shooting himself as a police squad closed in on him at the top of the school’s building.

Relatives, friends and colleagues shared condolences on social networks. More than 25 people were taken to hospitals and 13 suffered serious wounds.

Mourners kept bringing candles and flowers to makeshift memorials outside the Faculty of Arts as well as the Charles University’s headquarters nearby in the historic city centre.

“We are from a very small city, near from Prague, from Louny and one of our, not friends, but neighbours in our city died here,” said Vlasta Roflik outside the Faculty of Arts. “She was a professor, music professor. It’s very sad. Sorry.”

Vera Eliaskova said her friend was at the school during the shooting.

“She was directly on the fourth floor. Her colleague ran to her door and told her to lock herself and cover … She covered under the table,” she said. “I saw her yesterday and felt sorry for her. She was still shaking.”

Police said the shooter killed his father at home outside Prague before travelling to the city on Thursday, and ballistic analysis also linked a gun found at his house to murders of a man and two-month old baby last week.

Police said on Friday they had been closing in on the culprit in connection with the first murders but did not get to him in time.

The Czech Republic, a country of 10.9 million, has relatively relaxed gun laws and over 300,000 people are legal holders of around 1 million firearms mainly for sell-defence, sport and hunting. Mass shootings are still rare, with two smaller attacks in the past decade.

Speaker of the upper house of parliament Milos Vystrcil said that the country would of course debate how to prevent such attacks, but that free societies had to strike the right balance between freedom and regulation.

He said the matter for now was to show compassion to the victims’ families, and later to think of ways of avoiding such tragedies in the future.

“This is up to every one of us, not only up to politicians or how universities are secured, it is also about the media, about how we raise our children and grandchildren. I think everyone realises that today, when the Czech Republic is covered by black cloth at Christmas, let’s take inspiration from that and strength for the future.”

(Reporting by Radan Sprongl, Max Schwarz and Jan Lopatka, writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)