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Activist takes down Confederate flag outside South Carolina capitol

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - An activist climbed a flagpole outside the South Carolina state capitol early on Saturday and took down the Confederate flag, state officials said, a day after U.S. President Barack Obama called the banner a symbol of racial oppression.

Two people were arrested and charged with defacing a monument, the South Carolina Department of Public Safety said in a statement. The banner was replaced within an hour, it said.

The department identified them as 30-year-olds Brittany Ann Byuarim Newsome and James Ian Tyson, from North Carolina.

The Civil War-era flag has been a focal point in the United States after the fatal shooting last week of nine African Americans during a Bible study session at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was applauded on Saturday at the funeral of one of the victims, librarian Cynthia Hurd, when she told mourners, “I am sorry this happened on my watch, but we will make it right.”

Haley, who has attended all four of the funerals so far for the victims, on Monday led calls for the flag’s removal saying that while it was an important part of South Carolina’s past, it “does not represent the future of our great state.”

The suspect in the shootings, Dylann Roof, 21, had posed with a Confederate flag in photos posted on a website that also displayed a racist manifesto.

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A group of local activists said they organized the removal of the flag, which by law flies at a memorial on the Statehouse grounds honoring soldiers who fought on the side of the pro-slavery Confederacy during the 1860-65 American Civil War.

“We could not sit by and watch the victims of the Charleston Massacre be laid to rest while the inspiration for their deaths continues to fly above their caskets,” an activist group organized under the Twitter tag #KeepItDown said in a statement.

At a funeral for the slain Emanuel church pastor in Charleston on Friday, Obama called the banner “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation”.

“For too long we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens,” Obama said in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, 41.

The South Carolina Legislature is expected to begin debate next week on removing the flag from the memorial.

Reporting by David Adams and Laila Kearney in New York; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Digby Lidstone and Franklin Paul