A rising star in Britain’s parliament was shot and stabbed to death Thursday in an attack that stunned the nation and brought the country’s European Union referendum campaign to an immediate halt just a week before the vote.
Police officials in the northern English region of West Yorkshire said Jo Cox, a 41-year-old member of the center-left Labour Party who has been outspoken in advocating for refugees and civilian victims in Syria, was pronounced dead an hour after she was assaulted outside a library near the city of Leeds.
Police said they believe that a 52-year-old man who was taken into custody was responsible for the attack, and they did not think there were any accomplices.
Officials did not provide a motive for the killing. But British media organizations including the Guardian and Sky News quoted witnesses as saying that the assailant shouted “Britain first!” during and after the attack.
Britain First is the name of a far-right group that stages provocative anti-Muslim demonstrations. Following Thursday’s attack, the organization posted a statement on its website denying involvement and saying it “would never encourage behavior of this sort.”
Witnesses told British media that the assailant appeared to have been waiting for Cox outside a library in the town of Birstall where she had been meeting constituents. He targeted her with a gun that was either homemade or antique, as well as with a knife. The attacker continued to stab and kick Cox even after she had fallen to the ground, bleeding.
Cox was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Leeds. Before her death was announced, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted that staff members at Leeds General Infirmary were “doing everything possible.”
The killing shook Britain to the core, and prompted an outpouring of grief from across the political spectrum.
“We’ve lost a great star,” Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC. “She had a huge heart. She was a very compassionate, campaigning MP. She was a bright star, no doubt about it – a star for her constituents, a star for Parliament, and a star right across the House, and we have lost a star.”
Cameron’s predecessor, former prime minister Gordon Brown, described the attack as “a devastating blow to our democracy.” Cox had worked as an adviser to Brown’s wife, Sarah Brown, on women’s and children’s health campaigns.
“Sarah and I were privileged to work with Jo and her husband Brendan over many years and in her tireless efforts on behalf of poor and desolate children and mothers,” Brown wrote. “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.”
The attack came as the country heads into the homestretch of a campaign to determine whether to stay in the European Union, with a vote scheduled next Thursday.
Both the pro- and anti-E.U. camps announced that they were suspending their campaigns for the day following the attack. Cox was a supporter of keeping Britain in the 28-nation bloc.
Gun attacks in Britain are rare, a fact that authorities here attribute to extremely tight gun-control restrictions. Attacks against members of Parliament are also highly unusual, and politicians customarily do not have security details.
The last British lawmaker to be killed while in office was Conservative Ian Gow in 1990 from a bomb placed under his car by the Irish Republican Army. The same year, a former Parliament member, Donald Kaberry, was wounded in an IRA bombing and died the following year.
The attack on Cox echoed the 2011 shooting of U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., also while meeting constituents. Giffords was severely wounded but survived. On Thursday, Giffords tweeted: “Absolutely sickened to hear of the assassination of Jo Cox. She was young, courageous, and hardworking. A rising star, mother, and wife.”
Before Cox’s death was announced, the West Yorkshire police department said in a statement that a woman in her 40s – who was not identified – was in critical condition following an attack just before 1 p.m. local time. The police said a man was slightly injured. Witnesses said the man had attempted to stop the shooter.
The BBC broadcast a photo that it said showed the moment the suspected assailant was arrested. He appeared to be a white male dressed in a gray T-shirt and black pants.
Britain’s Press Association quoted witnesses in reporting that a man who works at a nearby dry cleaners initially tried to stop the assailant. The attacker, who was wearing a white baseball cap, then scuffled with Cox before shooting her at least twice and lunging at her with a knife.
“He was fighting with her and wrestling with her and then the gun went off twice and then she fell between two cars and I came and saw her bleeding on the floor,” the Press Association quoted a man named Hithem Ben Abdallah, who claimed to have witnessed the attack, as saying.
Aamir Tahir, 33, who runs a dry cleaning center about 100 yards from the scene of the attack, said in an interview that a female employee “heard two loud pops. She was in the back, doing the ironing, and heard two loud pops and some shouting. But she kept to her own until she heard the sirens, and when she went outside, there were police everywhere.”
Asked about reports that the assailant shouted “Britain first,” he said that neither he nor his employee had heard that.
The area is normally “really nice,” Tahir said. “It’s like a little village.”
After the attack, forensic teams dressed in white or blue body suits combed the area. Police tape was strung between buildings and parked cars.
Cox, the mother of two children, was elected in May 2015. She also was national chair of Labour Women’s Network and a senior adviser to the Freedom Fund, a group that campaigns against slavery and other domestic and workplace abuses.
On her Twitter page, she described herself as “mum, proud Yorkshire lass, boat dweller, mountain climber and former aid worker.” She previously worked as an adviser to the Britain-based aid group Oxfam.
In Parliament, Cox had been outspoken about the need to do more to protect civilians in Syria, and had argued in the House of Commons for Britain to accept 3,000 child refugees.
Before Cox’s death was announced Thursday afternoon, her husband posted a photo of her on Twitter standing beside their houseboat in London.
Brendan Cox later released a statement saying his wife would have had no regrets about her life.
“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 wrote. “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.”
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