FBI agents arrested a man in Florida on Friday suspected of sending at least a dozen parcel bombs to high-profile critics of US President Donald Trump days ahead of congressional elections, authorities said.
Two federal law enforcement officials named the suspect as Cesar Sayoc, 56. Two witnesses told Reuters they heard a loud blast as he was taken into custody in the parking lot of an AutoZone store in Plantation, near Fort Lauderdale.
Announcing the arrest to a cheering audience at the White House, Trump said such “terrorising acts” were despicable and had no place in the United States.
“We must never allow political violence to take root in America - cannot let it happen,” Trump said. “And I’m committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it and to stop it now.”
According to public records, Sayoc is a registered Republican and has been arrested numerous times over the years including one case in which he was accused of making a bomb threat.
Television images from Plantation showed investigators using a blue tarp to cover a white van, which was plastered with political decals and stickers including several of Trump, before removing it on a truck. A law enforcement source said the van belongs to Sayoc.
The arrest came just hours after Trump tweeted about the attacks and the effect they were having on the upcoming midterm elections.
While not an overt conspiracy theory, the president’s Friday claim bore similarity to statements made by several right-wing pundits, including Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, who suggested Wednesday that the bomb scares were staged for political purposes.
Twelve packages containing bombs have been intercepted or received this week, including two on Friday. They were addressed to former US President Barack Obama, former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and actor Robert De Niro among others, according to federal officials and US media reports.
The US Justice Department was due to hold a news conference at 2:30 p.m. EDT. (1830 GMT). A federal law enforcement source said charges would likely be brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
No one had claimed responsibility for parcel bombs, which were denounced by authorities as terrorism, and came less than two weeks ahead of US congressional elections that could alter the balance of power in Washington.
Police found two of the suspicious packages on Friday addressed to US Senator Cory Booker and James Clapper, the former US director of national intelligence, officials said.
The 11th package was addressed to Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, and was discovered at a mail sorting facility in Florida, the FBI said. A 12th package was addressed to Clapper at cable network CNN and was intercepted at a New York City post office, a federal law enforcement official said.
A thirteenth suspicious parcel was discovered addressed to Democratic US Senator Kamala Harris of California, CNN said.
A federal law enforcement official said earlier on Friday that the focus had intensified on Florida as a key location for the investigation and possible point of origin of the packages.
Police closed roads around the AutoZone parking lot where Sayoc was arrested, and helicopters flew overhead.
A man named Dre, a manager at a used car dealership next door to the AutoZone, said he heard a loud noise that sounded like an explosion shortly after 11 a.m.
“I heard like a bomb,” Dre, who declined to give his full name, said in a telephone interview. “I opened the door and saw the FBI there.”
A woman who lives nearby and declined to give her name said she was in her yard weeding on Friday morning when she heard a loud bang, saw smoke and heard a lot of shouting.