A doctor who was one of the few in the US to continue carrying out late-term abortions was shot dead in a church today.
George Tiller, 67, who had been picketed, bombed and shot in the arms in previous incidents, was killed at his church in Kansas, according to police sources.
Tiller was a controversial man, whose clinic has been the site of protests for two decades. He was shot and wounded by a protester in 1993 and someone placed a bomb on the roof of the clinic in 1986, seriously damaging the building.
Police spokesman Gordon Bassham would not confirm the victim's identity but said a 67-year-old "high-profile individual in the community" was shot and killed. He was shot at 10am in the lobby of Reformation Lutheran church in Wichita, police and city officials said.
According to the reports a white man carrying a handgun shot the doctor and then fled in a blue Ford Taurus.
"It's an unfortunate incident to happen on a Sunday morning," Wichita police captain Brent Allred told reporters. "These things should not occur at any time."
The FBI and state police were called in to help search for the gunman, whose licence plate was registered to a home in a suburb of Kansas City, 200 miles away.
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The shooting came just two weeks after Barack Obama sought "common ground" over the divisive abortion debate in a controversial speech at one of America's leading Catholic universities.
The president has attempted to defuse one of the most emotive issues in US public life by arguing that while abortion should remain legal, the government should do all it can to limit unwanted pregnancies.
Tiller had been regularly targeted by abortion opponents who protested outside his clinic. Some 2,000 protesters were also arrested outside the clinic during summer-long demonstrations in 1991.
He was acquitted in March on charges that he performed 19 illegal abortions in 2003. His lawyer described the prosecution as a witch-hunt. Tiller testified during the trial that he spent years under police protection after the FBI discovered an anti-abortion hit list in 1994 that named Tiller as the top target.
The doctor also testified that he owns one of only three clinics in the US that perform late-term abortions, which are performed on foetuses that could survive outside the mother's womb.
Late-term abortions are legal in Kansas if two independent doctors agree that the mother could suffer irreparable harm by giving birth.