A white gunman has gone on the rampage in an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing at least nine worshippers and wounding many others.

The Charleston Police Department said the shooting occurred at the historic Emanuel AME Church, usually frequented by black worshippers, at about 9pm on 17 June.

Police Chief Greg Mullen says eight people were found dead at the church and another person died later at the hospital.

Describing the shooting as a hate crime, Mullen said: "It is unfathomable that somebody in today's society would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives."

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said: "While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another."

Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley said: "This is the most unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy. People in prayer, coming together, praying and worshipping God, to have an awful person come in and shoot them is inexplicable, obviously the most intolerable and unbelievable act possible."

Officials did not release information about possible victims, reported the New York Times.

The police said the gunman was a clean-shaven white man aged about 21.

WBTV, a CBS affiliate based in Charlotte, reported on its website that there were fatalities, adding that the police removedthe news media after receiving a bomb threat.

Helicopters with searchlights circled overhead, and a group of pastors knelt and prayed across the street, The Associated Press reported.

It is the oldest AME church in the south and is led by South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, a Democrat. It has one of the oldest and largest black congregations south of Baltimore, according to its website. Denmark Vesey, executed for attempting to organise a major slave rebellion, was one of the founders.

As a result of the shooting, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush cancelled a campaign stop in the city.