Teardown of North Carolina Confederate statue sparks criminal probe

CHAPEL HILL, N.C., Aug 21 (Reuters) - University of North Carolina police began a criminal probe on Tuesday into the tearing down by activists of a statue of a Confederate soldier, the latest action to dismantle U.S. Civil War symbols amid debate about race and the legacy of slavery.

About 300 demonstrators gathered on Monday evening for a protest and march at the base of Silent Sam, a memorial erected in 1913 to soldiers of the pro-slavery Confederacy killed during the Civil War. Protesters pulled the statue down with rope, cheering as it lay face down in the mud, its head and back covered in dirt.

The university system's board chair, Harry Smith, and president, Margaret Spellings, said on Tuesday campus police had launched a criminal investigation into the incident, which they described as "mob rule."

"Campus leadership is in collaboration with campus police, who are pulling together a timeline of the events, reviewing video evidence, and conducting interviews that will inform a full criminal investigation," Smith and Spellings said in a statement.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said in a statement he shared protesters "frustration" over statues but condemned the violent destruction of public property.

Campus police arrested at least one person at the protest for masking their face and resisting arrest, according to Audrey Smith, a university spokeswoman.

The efforts by civil rights groups and others to do away with Confederate monuments such as Silent Sam gained momentum three years ago after avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooting rampage ultimately led to the removal of a Confederate flag from the statehouse in Columbia.

Since then, more than 110 symbols of the Confederacy have been removed across the nation with more than 1,700 still standing, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group. Many of the monuments were erected in the early 20th century, decades after the Civil War's end in 1865.

Many Americans see such statues as symbols of racism and glorifications of the southern states' defense of slavery. Others view them as important symbols of American history.

The head of the United Daughters of the Confederacy said on Tuesday the group denounced hate groups and asked people to leave Confederate monuments alone.

"We are grieved that certain hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own," the group's president, Patricia Bryson, said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen in New York Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Frances Kerry)