LONDON — A British lawmaker has been shot dead at close range on a street in northern England.
An eyewitness to the attack on Jo Cox, who was an MP of the left-wing Labour Party, claimed her attacker was shouting “Britain first!” as he kicked, stabbed and then fatally shot her.
Cox, 41, who had two young children, was a passionate immigration campaigner and an outspoken supporter of voting to remain in the European Union in next week’s referendum.
Police have arrested a 52-year-old suspect, who was named locally as Thomas Mair. A man with the same name, living in the same housing development in Leeds, previously subscribed to the magazine of a far-right organization which is campaigning for Britain to leave the EU because it has been “invaded by millions of ethnically and culturally alien migrants and their descendents, thus threatening our national identity.”
Detectives are investigating the suspect's background and the claims about what he shouted during the attack, but said they were not yet in a position to discuss the motive for Cox's murder.
Mair told a British newspaper in 2010 that he had suffered from mental health issues. In an interview about a volunteering project in a local park, he told the Huddersfield Daily Examiner: "I can honestly say it has done me more good than all the psychotherapy and medication in the world.”
Neighbors described Mair as quiet, but said he often helped elderly locals with their gardens.
Campaigning for Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union, which takes place next Thursday, has been suspended. Twenty-four hours before the assault, Cox's husband and children were on a boat on the River Thames campaigning for Britain to remain part of the union.
The horrific attack has stunned Britain, a country where there have been few political assassinations and gun crime is rare.
Brendan Cox, Jo’s husband, who was an adviser to Gordon Brown when he was prime minister, called on Britain to pull together in the wake of the devastating loss of his wife—and the mother of their two children, Cuillin and Lejla.
“Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people,” he said. “She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.”
Paul Golding, the leader of Britain First, denied that the alleged attacker had any connection to his radical right-wing party, which condemns immigration, multiculturalism and Islam.
“She has been out campaigning to keep Britain in the EU and there are people in the area that are against it,” he said in a video statement. “I don't think it was one of our supporters. We stand in elections and organize protests—we don't encourage this kind of nonsense.”
Eyewitnesses said Cox was approached by an older man who knocked her to the ground before firing at her at least twice with a makeshift, or antique, weapon. She was airlifted to a local hospital, but could not survive her injuries.
The attacker walked calmly away from the scene as local shopkeepers and residents rushed to help the popular Member of Parliament. Police officers arrested a 52-year-old suspect soon after the attack.
Hithem Ben Abdallah was in a café close to the attack when he heard screaming. He went outside to see a man attacking a woman as she lay on the ground.
“He was kicking her and he was pulling her by her hair. A very courageous man from the dry cleaners tried to restrain him and he couldn’t stop him because all of a sudden he pulled a gun,” he told the Press Association. “She was a standing still target for him when he shot her.
“The man stepped back with the gun and fired it and then he fired a second shot, as he was firing he was looking down at the ground.”
Once the attacker had walked away from the scene, Abdallah was stunned to discover that he knew the victim. He had helped campaign for the election of Cox, who became a Labour Member of Parliament last year.
“I’m absolutely shocked, because I know Jo very well. It’s devastating,” he said.
Another witness, Graeme Howard, 38, told The Guardian: “He was shouting ‘Britain first’ when he was doing it."
Sam Watson told Sky News that he arrived on the scene in time to see the attacker leave. [He] just walked—as if he wasn’t panicking,” he said.
Another witness, Clarke Rothwell, told the BBC he saw Cox being stabbed as well as shot. “Three times she was shot, the initial time which then she dropped to the floor and two more times. The third time he got close proximity he shot her round the head area,” he said. “In the meantime he was stabbing her as well, he was stabbing her with his knife.”
As news of the attack emerged, her friend Stella Creasy, a Labour Member of Parliament, wrote on Twitter: “Jo Cox not only a fantastic MP, she’s also a great mate—please, please, please God let her be ok!”
Cox was attacked while on the way to her weekly “public surgery,” in which residents in her district are able to ask their MPs for help or advice. In 2010, Stephen Timms was attacked during one of these events by a woman wielding a 6-inch kitchen knife. He survived two stab wounds after emergency surgery.
Cox was not so fortunate. "The death of Jo Cox is a tragedy. She was a committed and caring MP. My thoughts are with her husband Brendan and her two young children," said Prime Minister David Cameron.
Before entering politics, Cox was an executive for the humanitarian aid charity Oxfam, who made regular trips to war zones and some of the world’s most troubled regions.
"People will say that this does not happen in Britain. This should not happen in Britain. And we must resolve that this will never again happen in Britain,” said former prime minister Gordon Brown. “She she went to some of the most dangerous places in the world. The last place she should have been in danger was in her home town… For those of us who were Jo's friends, this is a devastating day. And it is a devastating blow to our democracy."