Resort island reels after deadly attack by gunman

AP News
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Posted: Nov 21, 2009 8:02 AM

The gunman who carried out Saipan's most violent attack in recent memory ended his life on the same rocky cliffs where numerous Japanese leapt to their deaths to avoid capture by U.S. troops during World War II.

Police and witness say that after the attacker went on a shooting rampage Friday that left four dead, he parked his van and walked to edge of Banzai Cliff. But instead of jumping, the gunman shot himself.

Six people were also wounded in the violence that left this usually tranquil tourist island reeling and shaken.

"The commonwealth has never experienced a tragic situation like this, and we are saddened by the appalling action of a single individual that has caused so much harm to our peaceful island community," Gov. Benigno R. Fitial said.

Fitial stressed the tourist haven was still a safe place and said precautions would be taken to prevent similar attacks.

Meanwhile, church and community groups organized a candlelight vigil, set for Sunday evening at Saipan's American Memorial Park, for the victims of the shootings.

Besides the gunman, the violence claimed the lives of two men, a 4-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, all residents of the U.S. commonwealth, Public Safety spokesman Jason Tarkong said. The wounded included a 4-year-old local girl and five South Korean tourists, including a boy and a girl.

The most seriously injured South Korean, a 39-year-old man with a gunshot wound to his back, was being flown by a U.S. Air Force plane to Seoul for treatment.

Police said the attack began Friday at a shooting range in the community of Kannat Tabla, where two men in their early 20s and the two children were fatally shot. The 4-year-old girl was critically injured with a gunshot wound to the chest.

Shortly after the first attack, the suspect drove several miles and began firing a rifle from a white van at a group of South Koreans visiting a World War II attraction in nearby Marpi, wounding five.

Roxanne Diaz told the Pacific Daily News about 60 people were in the area taking photos, "just like a regular tourist day."

"And next thing you know, they hear something that sounded like fireworks," followed by the bloody chaos, Diaz said.

The suspect was last spotted driving toward Banzai Cliff, the site where numerous Japanese jumped to their deaths to avoid capture in 1944 after the Battle of Saipan.

When officers arrived in the area, they discovered the van and found three rifles inside. The gunman's body was found along the edge off the cliff with a .22-caliber rifle strapped around his shoulder.

Police have not said if they know of a motive, but they do not believe the shooter was targeting tourists. Tarkong termed the violence as a random drive-by shooting.

Authorities said the suspected shooter was a contract worker in his 30s or 40s from China. His name was withheld pending notification of family, which was expected sometime Saturday. Several residents said the man was known as "Mr. Lee."

The Pacific News Center identified him as Lee Zhong Ren, an employee at the shooting range. The news station also reported that Lee left behind a suicide note that spoke of a business deal gone bad.

The telephone at the shooting range has been disconnected.

Saipan is the main island of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which has about 60,000 residents and is about 3,800 miles southwest of Hawaii. Saipan is a popular tourist destination among South Koreans, with more than 111,000 South Koreans visiting the island in 2008, according to the Marianas Visitors Authority.

Saipan officials feared the violence would lead to a drop in tourism, which has already suffered because of the sagging global economy.

The South Korean tourists were sightseeing in an area known as the Last Command Post, a World War II spot featuring remnants of American tanks. A memorial in the area is dedicated to Koreans who fought in the war.

Among those injured, a 39-year-old man was critically hurt with a wound to his back. A 5-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy were treated and released from the Commonwealth Health Center.

Lt. Gov. Eloy Inos called it a sad day for the commonwealth.

"This is an unfortunate but isolated incident," he said. "It happened for reasons unbeknownst to us, but we can handle this type of situation."

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Associated Press writers Greg Small and Jaymes Song in Honolulu, and Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this story.