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Two assailants massacre employees at California Christmas party

At least 14 people have been killed in a gun attack at a holiday party in southern California. It's the country's worst gun massacre since 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in 2012.

Authorities said two heavily armed people opened fire on employees having a Christmas party in the city of San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday. Two assailants, both of whom were later shot dead by police, killed 14 people and wounded 17 more.

Witnesses described the assailants as bursting into the holiday banquet held inside a rented room at the Inland Regional Center. Guests ran for cover under a hail of gunfire.

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Couple die in gun battle with police

A man and a woman suspected of carrying out the attack were killed in a shootout with police about 3 kilometers (2 miles) away in the hours that followed, police said. A third suspect was arrested as he ran away, but police have now said they believe the two dead suspects were the only assailants.

San Bernardino is about 100 kilometers east of Los Angeles in southern California.

Suspects named

Law enforcement officials have identified the two suspects as 28-year-old Syed Farook and 27-year-old Tashfeen Malik. Relatives have said the pair were married.

San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan told reporters that Farook had left the party earlier in an angry state, and had returned with Malik.

"We don't know what the motive is at this point," Burguan said. "The information we have is that they came prepared to do what they did as if they were on a mission."

schießerei kalifornien trauer san bernardino usa

A woman is comforted as she arrives at a social services center in San Bernardino, California

Both Farook and Malik were wearing tactical-style clothing that was "loaded with magazines for a gunfight," Meredith Davis, a spokeswoman with the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) told KCAL9 television.

The executive director of the Council on American-Islamic relations, Hussam Ayloush, said Farook and Malik had left their baby with family members on Wednesday morning. He also condemned the killings and said a relative of one of the suspects would be addressing an evening news conference.

Terrorism or not?

"I know one of the big questions that will come up repeatedly is, 'Is this terrorism?'" David Bowdich, the FBI assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles field office, told reporters. "And I am still not willing to say that we know that for sure."

Few details are known about Farook, who police said was born in the United States. Public records list him as an employee with the county's health department. Staff members from the county agency had gathered inside the conference hall for their annual holiday party.

Worst since Sandy Hook

The Wednesday shooting was the worst massacre since

a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook elementary school

in the US state of Connecticut in 2012.

There has been an uptick in gun violence in the United States, with a polarizing debate between those advocating stronger controls on firearms, and staunch gun-rights advocates who argue that the right to bear firearms is enshrined in the US constitution.

US President Barack Obama says

he favors "common sense" gun control

and has made repeated calls for Congress to act to restrict access to firearms by criminals and the mentally ill.

"The one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world," Obama told CBS News. "There are some steps we could take, not to eliminate every one of these mass shootings, but to improve the odds that they don't happen as frequently."

jar, tj/sms (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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