A pro-European Union British lawmaker was killed in a shock daylight street attack on Thursday, halting campaigning for the referendum on Britain's membership in the bloc just a week before the crucial vote. Jo Cox, a 41-year-old mother-of-two from the opposition Labour Party, was shot in the face while lying on the ground by a lone attacker in the village of Birstall in northern England, according to witnesses quoted by local media.
Cafe owner Clarke Rothwell told the Press Association the gunman was shouting "put Britain first". "He shouted it about two or three times. He said it before he shot her and after he shot her," he said.
Cox, who was also reportedly stabbed, is the first British MP to be killed in office since Ian Gow was killed by a car bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army in 1990. "He shot this lady once and then he shot her again... leant over shot her once more in the face area," Rothwell told the BBC, referring to the attacker.
Police said a 52-year-old man had been arrested and a firearm had been recovered from the scene. Cox, a former aid worker, was only elected to parliament last year but had already made her name campaigning for the government to do more to help Syrian refugees and for Britain to stay in the EU.
'Great, campaigning MP'
The attacker was named by British media as local man Tommy Mair, with neighbours quoted as saying he was a "loner" who kept to himself. The Southern Poverty Law Center said he was a supporter of a neo-Nazi group based in the United States and had what it called a long history with white nationalism.
"According to records obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center Mair was a dedicated supporter of the National Alliance (NA), the once premier neo-Nazi organization in the United States, for decades," the US-based legal advocacy group said on its website.
The group said he had spent more than $620 on reading material from the National Alliance, a group which called for the creation of an all-white homeland and eradication of Jewish people. The accused gunman's brother, Scott Mair, told the Daily Telegraph that Tommy had suffered from mental illness but received treatment.
"I am struggling to believe what has happened. My brother is not violent and is not all that political," Scott Mair said. "He has a history of mental illness, but he has had help." In the wake of the attack, commentators questioned whether the tone of the EU referendum campaign had been too divisive, pointing in particular to the focus on immigration.
Alex Massie, writing in the Spectator magazine, blamed the "Leave" campaign for raising tensions, saying: "When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged". "When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don't be surprised if someone takes you at your word," he wrote.
'Hatred' is no solution
After the attack, pro- and anti-Brexit groups said they were suspending all campaigning for Thursday and Friday ahead of the June 23 EU membership referendum. Prime Minister David Cameron cancelled a planned rally during a historic but controversial visit to Gibraltar as part of his campaign for Britain to remain in the EU.
Over parliament, the British flag flew at half-mast, while nearby Cox's Labour party colleagues gathered in a vigil for the MP. "Hatred will never solve problems," party leader Jeremy Corbyn said at the commemoration.
In Birstall, local residents laid flowers near the scene of the attack as police forensic officers were seen examining a shoe and a handbag in a cordoned-off area. The attack halted a frantic day of campaigning, as two new opinion polls indicated that more Britons now want to leave the EU than want to stay.
If they prove correct, Britain would become the first state in the nearly six-decade history of the bloc to leave. A new survey by Ipsos Mori showed support for leaving the EU now stands at 53 percent compared to 47 percent for those who want to stay in, excluding undecided voters.
Another new poll by Survation put "Leave" ahead by 52-48, excluding undecided voters. Polling expert John Curtice said the race was now too close to call, telling the BBC: "I think we no longer have a favourite in this referendum."