Brazil reels from school shooting tragedy

RIO DE JANEIRO, April 7, 2011 (AFP) - A disturbed young Brazilian man on a suicide mission shot dead 10 girls and two boys on Thursday at his former elementary school in Rio de Janeiro.

Wellington Menezes de Oliveira, 24, also shot and wounded 12 others -- many in the head -- and only stopped firing when he was shot in the leg by a police officer and turned one of his revolvers on himself, officials said.

The death toll was raised late Thursday as a 13-year-old boy had succumbed to his injuries, health officials told local media.

A rambling, religiously themed suicide note was found in his clothes but it shed little light on the motivation of his macabre attack on defenseless young children, aged between nine and 15, as they arrived for morning class.

President Dilma Rousseff, who only took office in January, could not hold back the tears as she shared her grief with a nation struggling to comprehend what was the worst school shooting in Brazil's history.

"It's not common for this country to see such a crime. This is not representative of the country. Innocent children lost their lives and their future," she said.

Her voice cracked as she asked people to stand for a minute's silence, "so that we may pay our respects to these little Brazilians whose lives were taken away prematurely."

Police cordoned off the three-story building in Rio's Realengo district as they interviewed residents and parents to find out what happened, while a local hospital called for people to give blood.

"Employees of the school told officers the young man arrived well-dressed and carrying a backpack and said he told them he had been invited to speak with students for a conference," explained fire spokesman Evandro Bezerra.

"That's how he gained access to the third floor," where he attacked at least one classroom, sending terrified students running out of the building, Bezerra said, adding: "He came to the school prepared to do what he did."

Officials said police officers patrolling nearby had averted an even greater massacre at the school, which caters for some 400 pupils.

"If the police had not arrived so quickly the tragedy would have been much worse, because the man had a lot of ammunition and was carrying two handguns," military police spokesman Djalma Beltrame said.

"An officer who arrived at the school injured him in an exchange of gunfire, but the man killed himself with a shot to the head."

Menezes de Oliveira's parents said their adopted son had left home eight months previously.

A bizarre letter found on his dead body showed the killer's clearly disturbed mindset and confirmed he had embarked on a premeditated suicide mission.

"They must know that the impure cannot touch me without gloves, only the chaste or those who lost their chastity after marriage and were not involved in adultery will be able to touch me without gloves," it said.

"Nothing that is impure can touch my blood," the letter continued, leaving instructions for his body to be undressed, cleaned and then wrapped in a white shroud he took with him to the school.

The note, which he signed, also expressed his desire to be buried next to his adopted mother and asked that "his tomb be visited by a loyal follower of God to pray before my burial asking God forgiveness for what I have done."

His victims had no time to leave a note to their loved-ones.

Pamela Cristina Ferreira was on the third floor when she heard gunfire and raced down the stairs to the auditorium with many other terrified pupils.

"I'm scared to go back to school," the 13-year-old, who escaped but lost her friend Larissa and nine other classmates, told AFP.

"We blocked the auditorium doors with barricades," she said. "We were all in a panic, but we calmed down when we saw the police."

Rio state health minister Sergio Cortes told national broadcaster Agencia Brasil those killed were nine girls and one boy.

Education Minister Fernando Haddad described the attack as "an unprecedented tragedy in Brazil," adding that "this is a day of mourning for all Brazilian education."

Violence plagues many South American countries but school shootings are extremely rare. The last high-profile incident was at a school in Argentina in September 2004, when a 15-year-old student shot dead three classmates.

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