Police and federal agents searched on Sunday for a gunman who shot and wounded three college students of Palestinian descent in Burlington, Vermont, in what investigators suspect was a hate-motivated crime, authorities said.
A man with a pistol shot the three victims on the street near the University of Vermont on Saturday evening and then ran away, Burlington police said in a statement.
Two victims are US citizens and the third is a legal US resident, all 20 years old, police said. Two of the men were wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional black-and-white checkered scarf of Middle Eastern dress, at the time of the attack, police said.
The victims were reported to have been speaking Arabic when attacked, according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a nonprofit pro-Palestinian advocacy organization, which also said the assailant opened fire on the three men after he began to shout at and harass them. Police say he fired four shots without saying a word.
The shooting came amid a rise in anti-Islamic and antisemitic incidents reported around the United States since the latest wave of Israel-Palestinian bloodshed erupted in the Middle East on Oct 7.
"In this charged moment, no one can look at this incident and not suspect that it may have been a hate-motivated crime," Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said in a statement.
"I have already been in touch with federal investigatory and prosecutorial partners to prepare for that if it's proven," Murad added, saying the criminal probe was focused for now on apprehending the suspect.
"That there is an indication that this shooting could have been motivated by hate is chilling, and this possibility is being prioritized" by police, Mayor Miro Weinberger said.
The victims' families issued a joint statement earlier in the day urging authorities to investigate the shooting as a hate crime, as did the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a U.S.-based advocacy group.
"The surge in anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian sentiment we are experiencing is unprecedented, and this is another example of that hate turning violent," ADC National Executive Director Abed Ayoub said.
The families identified the victims as Hisham Awartani, a student at Brown University in Rhode Island; Kinnan Abdel Hamid, a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania; and Tahseen Ahmed, who attends Trinity College in Connecticut. All three are graduates of the Ramallah Friends School, a private Quaker secondary school in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the families said.
Two of the students were visiting the home of the third student's family in Burlington for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Police said all three remained under medical care on Sunday, two with gunshot wounds in their torsos and one shot in the lower extremities. "Two are stable, while one has sustained much more serious injuries," police said.