Charleston Church Shooting Investigators Hunting Suspect Dylann Storm Roof

Officers investigating the shooting of nine people in a Charleston church have released images and named the suspect they are hunting.

Police are treating the murder of nine people at the historically black church in the US state of South Carolina as a "hate crime".

Charleston police officers released an image of the suspect following Wednesday's church shooting

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said a gunman entered the the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a prayer meeting and opened fire in an incident he calls the "worst night of my career".

The man police are hunting has been named as 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, who they believe is driving a 2000 Hyundai Elantra GS.

Addressing a press conference on Thursday morning, Mullen said: "Over the course of the last several hours we have obtained videos of the suspect in this case, aswell as a suspect vehicle."

He continued: "This is an extremely dangerous individual and we need the public's assistance to identify him as quickly as possible."

In response to a question from the press pack about where the suspect might be, Mullen said: "We have no reason to believe he is not in the Charleston area."

The police chief said his department were unable to obtain a specific make and model of the vehicle because those details were unclear from the footage.

The City Government also posted the police appeal on its Facebook page.

Charleston Police have identified a suspect in the shooting that occurred at about 9 p.m. on June 17 at Emmanuel AME...

Posted by City of Charleston, SC Government on Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is helping local authorities with the case.

Eight were found dead at the scene. Two others were transported to a hospital, where one later died.

Police have not named the victims of the attack, but New York-based civil rights leader, Reverend Al Sharpton, tweeted that the church's pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, was one of those fatally shot.

Reverend Clementa Pinckney, church pastor, is believed to be one of those killed in the shootings

Calling it the "worst night of my career", Mullen said: "I do believe this is a hate crime."

Mullen said there were others who survived the attack, but he did not give further details. He added that a reward would be offered, with the amount to be announced later on Thursday.

Speaking to The Post and Courier, Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, said the gunman initially sat down in the church for a bit before standing up and opening fire.

He then let one of the women in the church go so she could tell everyone else what happened, Scott said.

“The only reason someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, speaking at the same news conference. “It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine.”

The shootings are believed to have taken place at about 9pm and prompted a large police response, with at least six ambulances attending the scene.

Speaking to NBC news, the cousin of the church pastor believed to have died in the shooting said she had spoken to one of the survivors who recounted the gunman's chilling words.

"He just said: 'I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go'," Sylvia Johnson recalled.

The historically black church, commonly referred to as "Mother Emanuel," has existed for nearly 200 years.

According to the church website, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has "one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland." One of the church's founding members, Denmark Vesey, organised a slave uprising that started in 1821.

Listen to the Mayor of Charleston speak of the "outpouring of love" that he says will engulf the community in the wake of last night's distressing events:

Charleston Shooting