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Mr Abe, 67, collapsed after being shot twice in the neck with a makeshift shotgun while giving a campaign speech in the southern city of Nara.
Shocking footage, beamed around the world by news channels and on social media, showed the politician lying bleeding on the ground before being rushed to hospital by air ambulance.
The suspected gunman, identified as Navy veteran Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, had opened fire with an apparently homemade gun as Mr Abe addressed an outdoor audience.
The attacker was immediately tackled to the ground by security guards before being arrested.
Police said he immediately confessed to the killing, expressing “dissatisfaction” as his only motive.
Officers later discovered an arsenal of explosives and home-made pistols at his home.
Mr Abe was pronounced dead at the Nara Medical University Hospital, where doctors revealed he had sustained fatal wounds to the right side of the neck.
The hospital said that medics had battled for four hours to try to save him, at one point carrying out a blood transfusion.
But the two wounds had proven to be fatal, though doctors did not find any bullets during surgery, it was said.
Mr Abe, who was married but did not have children, was pronounced dead shortly after 8am UK time. Doctors treating him said he had bled to death.
In Japan, his death was announced by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party shortly after his distraught wife Akie, 60, had arrived at his bedside.
But news of the killing immediately sent shock waves around the world.
Mr Abe was in office from 2006 to 2007 and then again from 2012 to 2020 and remains the country’s longest-serving PM.
Global leaders immediately reacted with shock and dismay to news of the assassination.
In a statement issued by Buckingham Palace, the Queen said: “My family and I were deeply saddened to hear the news of the sudden and tragic death of former prime minister, Shinzo Abe.“
“I have fond memories of meeting Mr Abe and his wife during their visit to the United Kingdom in 2016. His love for Japan, and his desire to forge ever-closer bonds with the United Kingdom, were clear. I wish to convey my deepest sympathy and condolences to his family and to the people of Japan at this difficult time.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted: “Incredibly sad news about Shinzo Abe. His global leadership through unchartered times will be remembered by many.”
“My thoughts are with his family, friends and the Japanese people. The UK stands with you at this dark and sad time.”
Current Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the shooting an attack on “the foundation of democracy”. He added: “I would like to use the most extreme words available to condemn this act.”
A spokesman for US President Joe Biden said: “We are shocked and saddened to hear about the violent attack against former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.”
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed her shock at the shooting.
She said: “Events like this shake us all to the core.” French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that he was “deeply shocked by the odious attack”.
He also paid tribute to Mr Abe as “a great prime minister” and said: “France stands at the side of the Japanese people.”
Images of Yamagami being arrested at the scene showed he was wielding what appeared to be a home-made shotgun.
Witnesses said Mr Abe was about to start speaking when Yamagami approached him from behind and fired two shots, the second of which sent him sprawling to the ground.
The shotgun was made out of two pieces of pipe attached to a wooden board, with an electronic firing mechanism fitted underneath.
It is not clear what kind of ammunition was used.
Arrangements for Mr Abe’s funeral have yet to be announced.
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