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CONNECTICUT, United States - The residents of an idyllic Connecticut town were reeling in horror Saturday, December 15, from the massacre of 20 small children and six adults in one of the worst school shootings in US history.
The heavily armed gunman shot dead 18 children inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, said Connecticut State Police spokesman Lieutenant Paul Vance.
Two more died of their wounds in hospital, Vance said.
Six adults at the school were also killed, he added, before the gunman, clad in black military-style clothing and a vest, according to media reports, was shot -- either by his own hand or by police.
US media said the school principal was among those killed.
Authorities offered little clue as to the motive for the shootings in Newtown, a wooded and picturesque small town north-east of New York City.
Police have not yet publicly identified the victims, but families have been notified, a process Vance told FoxNews was "heartbreaking" for everyone involved.
Vance told Fox medical examiners were working through the night to confirm the identities of the victims. Officials had said they expected to be able to release the names of the victims later on Saturday.
Hours after the shooting, hundreds of people gathered for a vigil, the crowd filling the church to capacity and spilling outside its doors.
"This is a kind of community, when things like that happen, they really pull together," the priest, Robert Weiss, said during the Mass.
A letter from Pope Benedict XVI was also read during the service.
"I ask God our father to console all those who mourn and to sustain the entire community with the spiritual strength which triumphs over violence by the power of forgiveness, hope and reconciling love," the pope wrote, according to US media.
David Connors, whose triplets were at the school during the shooting but were unharmed, said he was still horrified.
"It's hard. I've never imagined a thing like that could happen here."
"Our faith is tested," state Governor Dan Malloy told the congregants. "Not just necessarily our faith in God, but our faith in community, and who we are, and what we collectively are."
Earlier the governor had said "evil visited this community today."
President Barack Obama, wiping away tears and struggling to maintain his composure, said he was aghast over the tragedy.
State police spokesman Vance said just one injured person survived, indicating that the gunman was unusually accurate or methodical in his fire.
The majority of killings, which began at around 9:30 am, "took place in one section of the school, in two rooms," Vance added. The children were aged between five and 10, officials said.
US media reported that the killer was Adam Lanza, 20, and that police had earlier confused him with his brother, 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, whose identity card he had been carrying with him when he went into the school.
The surviving brother was in custody and being questioned, according to US television reports.
Many news outlets said another victim found in a home in Newtown -- the 28th body in the day's bloodshed -- was the shooter's mother, who was a teacher at Sandy Hook and whom he had killed before driving to the school.
Obama went on national television to express his "overwhelming grief." He ordered flags to be lowered to half mast.
And there were similar statements of grief and shock around the world.
The head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, spoke of his "deep shock and horror," Britain's Queen Elizabeth II sent a message to Obama in which she said she was "deeply shocked and saddened," and French President Francois Hollande expressed his condolences to Obama, saying the news "horrified me."
Of all US campus shootings, the toll was second only to the 32 murders in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech university.
The latest number far exceeded the 15 killed in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, which triggered a fierce but inconclusive debate about the United States' relaxed gun control laws.
However, the White House on Friday scotched any suggestion that the politically explosive subject would be quickly reopened.
Witnesses described an intense fusillade fired at the elementary school, possibly numbering some 100 rounds, and seeing a corridor splattered with blood.
"I thought we were all going to die," a first grade teacher told ABC through tears as she recounted hiding with her students.
Police swarmed into the leafy neighborhood after the shooting, while other area schools were put under lock-down.
A young student told WCBS television he could hear the gunshots but wasn't sure what they were.
"I was in the gym at the time... we heard lots of bangs, and we thought that it was the custodian knocking stuff down. We heard screaming," he said.
"Then the police came in. It's like, is he in here? Then he ran out. Then somebody yelled 'get to a safe place,' so we went to the closet in the gym and we sat there for a little while," he said, as stunned parents arrived.
"Then the police like were knocking on the door, and they're like, we're evacuating people, we're evacuating people. We ran out."
The police response was credited with ensuring the speedy evacuation of the rest of the school.
Deadly shootings are frequent occurrences in US public places, often ending only when the gunman is shot or kills himself.
On Tuesday, a man with a semi-automatic rifle raked an Oregon shopping mall, killing two people then taking his own life.
In the most notorious recent incident until now, a 24-year-old, James Holmes, allegedly killed 12 people and wounded 58 others when he opened fire at a midnight screening of the latest Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado, in July.
However, despite the tragedies, support for tougher gun ownership laws is mixed, with many Americans opposing restrictions on what they consider to be a constitutional right to keep powerful firearms at home. - Agence France-Presse