Live updates: Shinzo Abe, Japan’s former prime minister, seriously injured after shooting

TOKYO (AP) — Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated on a street in western Japan on Friday by a gunman who opened fire on him from behind as he delivered a campaign speech — an attack that has stunned a nation with some of the strictest gun control laws anywhere.

Abe, 67, who was Japan’s longest-serving leader when he stepped down in 2020, collapsed bleeding and was airlifted to a nearby hospital in Nara, despite not breathing and his heart stopping. He was later pronounced dead after receiving massive blood transfusions, officials said.

A hearse carrying Abe’s body left the hospital early Saturday to return home to Tokyo. Abe’s wife, Akie, lowered her head as the vehicle drove past a crowd of reporters.

Nara Medical University’s emergency department chief, Hidetada Fukushima, said Abe suffered significant heart damage, as well as two neck injuries that damaged an artery. He never regained his vital signs, Fukushima said.

Police at the scene of the shooting arrested Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, a former member of the Japanese Navy, on suspicion of murder. Police say he used a firearm that was obviously homemade – about 15 inches (40 centimeters) long – and they confiscated similar weapons and his personal computer when they raided his apartment in a room nearby.

Police said Yamagami answered questions calmly and admitted to attacking Abe, telling investigators he plotted to kill him because he believed rumors of the former leader’s ties to a certain organization that police did not identify.

Dramatic video from broadcaster NHK showed Abe standing and giving a speech outside a train station ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary election. As he raised his fist to score a point, two shots rang out and he collapsed clutching his chest, his shirt stained with blood as security guards ran towards him. Guards then jumped on the shooter, who was face down on the sidewalk, and a double-barreled gun was seen nearby.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his ministers hastily returned to Tokyo from campaign events elsewhere following the shooting, which he called “despicable and barbaric”. He promised the election, which chooses members of Japan’s less powerful upper house, would go ahead as planned.

“I use the harshest words to condemn (the act),” Kishida said, struggling to control his emotions. He said the government would review the security situation, but added that Abe had the highest protection.

Even though he was not in power, Abe was still very influential within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and led its largest faction, Seiwakai, but his ultra-nationalist views made him a divisive figure for many.

Opposition leaders condemned the attack as a challenge to Japanese democracy. Kenta Izumi, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, called it an “act of terrorism” and said it “attempted to nullify freedom of speech…causing makes it a situation where (Abe’s) speech can never be heard again.”

In Tokyo, people stopped to buy extra editions of newspapers or watch TV coverage of the shooting. Flowers were placed at the filming locations in Nara.

When he resigned as prime minister, Abe blamed a recurrence of ulcerative colitis he had since his teenage years. He said then that it was hard to leave many of his goals unfinished, particularly his failure to resolve the problem of the Japanese abducted years ago by North Korea, a territorial dispute with Russia and a review of the constitution of Japan renouncing war.

This ultra-nationalism angered the Koreas and China, and his drive to create what he saw as a more normal defense posture angered many Japanese. Abe failed to achieve his cherished goal of formally rewriting the US-drafted pacifist constitution due to weak public support.

Loyalists said his legacy was a stronger U.S.-Japan relationship meant to bolster Japan’s defense capability. But Abe has made enemies by forcing his defense targets and other contentious issues through parliament, despite strong public opposition.

Abe was trained to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. His political rhetoric was often aimed at making Japan a “normal” and “beautiful” nation with a stronger military and a bigger role in international affairs.

Tributes to Abe poured in from world leaders, with many expressing their shock and grief. US President Joe Biden praised him, saying “his vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific will endure. Above all, he cared deeply for the Japanese people and devoted his life to their service.“

On Saturday, Biden called Kishida and expressed outrage, sadness and deep condolences for Abe’s shooting death. Biden noted the importance of Abe’s legacy, including through the establishment of Quad meetings from Japan, the United States, Australia and India. Biden expressed confidence in the strength of Japanese democracy and the two leaders discussed how Abe’s legacy will endure as the two allies continue to uphold peace and democracy, according to the White House.

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose term from 2005-21 largely overlapped with Abe’s, said she was devastated by the “cowardly and despicable assassination”. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared Saturday a day of national mourning for Abe, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted that he would be remembered for “his collegiality and commitment to multilateralism”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declined to comment, except to say that Beijing offered sympathy to Abe’s family and that the shooting should not be linked to bilateral relations. But the country’s social media posts were harsh, with some calling the shooter a ‘hero’ – reflecting strong sentiment against right-wing Japanese politicians who question or deny Japan’s military has committed wartime atrocities in China.

Biden, who is facing a summer of mass shootings in the United States, also said that “gun violence still leaves a deep scar on the communities affected by it.”

Japan is particularly known for its strict gun laws. With a population of 125 million, there were just 10 gun-related criminal cases last year, resulting in one death and four injuries, police said. Eight of those cases were gang-related. Tokyo recorded no incidents, injuries or deaths with firearms in the same year, although 61 guns were seized.

Abe was proud of his work to strengthen Japan’s security alliance with the United States and of leading the first visit of a sitting US president, Barack Obama, to the atomic bomb-bombed city of Hiroshima. . He also helped Tokyo win the right to host the 2020 Olympics by promising that a disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was “under control” when it was not.

He became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006, aged 52, but his overly nationalistic first stint ended abruptly a year later, also because of his health.

The end of Abe’s scandal-laden first term as prime minister marked the start of six years of annual leadership changes, remembered as an era of “revolving door” politics that lacked stability.

Upon his return to power in 2012, Abe pledged to revitalize the nation and lift its economy out of its deflationary slump with his “Abenomics” formula, which combines fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms.

He won six national elections and built a solid grip on power, strengthening Japan’s defense role and capability and its security alliance with the United States. He also intensified patriotic education in schools and raised Japan’s international profile.

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Follow AP’s Asia-Pacific coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/asia-pacific

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