Dutch town in shock after shooting rampage

ALPHEN AAN DEN RIJN, Netherlands Sun Apr 10, 2011 9:48am EDT

1 of 3. A body is covered in foil after a shooting at a shopping mall in Alphen aan den Rijn, Southern Netherlands April 9, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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ALPHEN AAN DEN RIJN, Netherlands (Reuters) - A gunman's deadly rampage through a shopping mall was met on Sunday with disbelief by residents of a quiet Dutch town who once thought such carnage couldn't happen in their country.

Dressed in camouflage trousers and a bomber jacket, Tristan van der Vlis opened fire in a parking lot on Saturday and walked calmly into Ridderhof mall, where he killed five people, most of them elderly. He wounded 17 others, one of whom died later.

The 24-year-old gun club member then shot and killed himself.

"This is something you usually see in America, not in the Netherlands," said local resident Martin van der Ploeg as he fixed his motorbike near the mall in Alphen aan den Rijn, 46 km (29 miles) south of Amsterdam.

The town lies between the university cities of Leiden and Utrecht, near the area of the Netherlands famous for growing tulips and other bulbs.

"Dutch people consider themselves down to earth. We don't have this sort of excess," Van der Ploeg said. "This was my home, my sanctuary, where I need to feel safe, and now that's gone."

The gunman left a farewell letter, found by his mother, in which he mostly talked about his suicidal feelings. But it did not give a clear motive for the killings, the town's mayor, Bas Eenhoorn, told Dutch television.

His shooting spree was the deadliest attack in the Netherlands since a Dutch national drove his car into a crowd in 2009, killing seven people and himself in an apparent attempt to hit the queen in Apeldoorn, 90 km (55 miles) east of Amsterdam.

"VERY POLITE"

Van der Vlis lived in a nine-storey building some 200 meters (yards) from the shopping mall.

"He was very polite and very nice," said one of Van der Vlis' neighbors, a woman who declined to be identified.

"I was very surprised to hear it was him who shot. I have kids and often they were in the elevator with him, and now when I think about it, that is scary," she said.

Messages of condolence have poured in from members of the public, expressing shock that such an incident could take place in a country with no history of random killings and a reputation for a relatively low crime rate.

On Sunday morning, several police stood outside the cordoned-off shopping mall. A few people were out on the quiet streets, walking their dogs or cycling.

Frank Oppelaar, who lives next to the mall, said he thought the noise he heard as Van der Vlis shot his victims, apparently at random, sounded like fireworks.

"I thought it was a little early for fireworks. I went out on my balcony and took pictures of people running in panic from the shopping mall. It's terrible what has happened."

Public prosecutor Kitty Nooy said Van der Vlis had acted alone. He was investigated by police in 2003 on suspicion of violating weapons laws but not convicted, she said.

"He had a license for five guns and he owned three," she told reporters on Saturday.

The gunman left a second letter in his car in which he said there were explosives in three other shopping malls in the town, police said. Authorities evacuated the buildings but so far no explosives have been found.

Outside Ridderhof mall, people began laying flowers and a candlelit vigil was planned for the evening.

"Incomprehensible. It is so incomprehensible that all words fail," said a message on the public condolence page signed "Anita."

(Writing by Sara Webb; Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

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