Chapel Hill (United States) (AFP) - Police investigating the murders of three Muslim students in the United States said they were studying whether the fatal shootings were religiously motivated, as calls mounted for the killings to be treated as a hate crime.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder after Tuesday's slayings in the North Carolina university town of Chapel Hill which sparked outrage amongst Muslims worldwide.
Police emphasized that initial investigations indicated a dispute between Hicks and his victims over parking spaces may have been the catalyst for a shooting spree which claimed the lives of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.
However, police said they had not ruled out the possibility that hatred of Muslims had motivated Hicks.
"We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case," Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said.
The cautious wording of the police statement contrasted sharply with the anguished reaction amongst many Muslims, with the father of two of the students demanding investigators treat the killing as a "hate crime."
"This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime," said Mohammad Abu-Salha, the psychiatrist father of the two women shot dead.
"This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt."
Abu-Salha told the local News & Observer newspaper his daughter had voiced fears about Hicks last week.
"Honest to God, she said, 'He hates us for what we are and how we look,'" Abu-Salha was quoted as saying.
The sister of slain Deah Shaddy Barakat echoed the demands.
"We are still in a state of shock as we will never be able to make sense of this horrendous tragedy," Suzanne Barakat said.
"We ask that the authorities investigate these senseless and horrendous murders as a hate crime."
- 'Religion not a factor' -
But Hicks's wife remained adamant that religion was not behind the slayings.
"I can say with my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or victims' faith," Karen Hicks told a press conference, maintaining that a "long-standing parking dispute" was to blame.
Muslims across the globe were quick to latch onto a viral campaign which asserted that the killings had been under-reported by the US mainstream media because of the religion of the victims.
The hashtags #ChapelHillShooting and #MuslimLivesMatter were trending on Twitter, with many claiming the crimes would have garnered more attention had the gunman been a Muslim and the victims white.
"Muslims only newsworthy when behind a gun. Not in front (of) it," read one post which reflected the sentiments of many on Twitter.
By early Wednesday, however, the story was among the top headlines on national news networks in the United States, with lengthy reports also featuring prominently on the websites of major newspapers including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
Investigators were piecing together a picture of the alleged gunman, who turned himself into police shortly after the shooting on Tuesday.
- 'It's horrendous' -
A Facebook page believed to belong to Hicks showed dozens of anti-religious posts, including one calling himself an "anti-theist," saying he has a "conscientious objection to religion," and other memes denouncing Christianity, Mormonism and Islam.
One post read: "I'm not an atheist because I'm ignorant of the reality of religious scripture. I'm an atheist because religious scripture is ignorant of reality."
Photos of the three victims circulated on social media, including recent wedding pictures of Barakat and his wife.
Barakat was a second-year student in dentistry at the University of North Carolina while his wife was planning to begin her dental studies in the fall.
Abu-Salha was a student at North Carolina State University, according to the UNC university newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel.
Neighbors of the victims struggled to come to terms with the killings, which shattered the peace of the normally tranquil neighborhood.
"No one ever expected that to happen here of all places and it's certainly kind of stunning for most of the people," Robert Brown, 25, told AFP.