Two Officers Shot During Protest Near Ferguson Police Department

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Two police officers suffered "very serious" wounds after being shot early Thursday during a demonstration in Ferguson, Missouri, authorities said.

Gunfire rang out as about 50 protesters and about 30 police officers remained outside the Ferguson Police Department shortly after midnight local time (1 a.m. ET) at a dwindling rally following the resignation of the embattled force's chief.

St. Louis County Police Chief John Belmar said that it appeared that at least three shots were "directed exactly at" the officers.

Speaking at an early-morning press conference, Belmar said that a 32-year-old officer had been shot in the face and a 41-year-old officer had been struck in the shoulder. Belmar told reporters both victims were conscious but described their wounds as "very serious." The injuries were not believed to be life-threatening.

Cellphone video captured the moment of the shooting.

Witness Ivory Ned, 24, told NBC News that "tensions were running high" before the shots erupted.

"I was in Ferguson, across the street from the police department where the protesters were standing," Ned said. "Police were coming back and forth, pushing us back to the sidewalk. I got down on the ground when the shots were fired. It sounded like it was around 30 feet away, coming from behind me up on the hill."

Ned added: "I did not want to take any chances because I did not know if the police were shooting or what was going on so I got down on my knees and I hid behind a car. It put everybody in a panic. Police officers were crouched down and they had their guns out. Everybody was in a state of standstill. Once everybody started getting up, you saw two officers still down on the ground so you knew who got shot."

Freelance producer Jennifer Roller had been covering the rally, which had been peaceful since about 8 p.m. local time.

"I heard pop, pop, pop, pop," Roller said. "I thought they were fireworks until I heard the cops screaming, 'get down, get down'."

The crowd had gathered outside the force's headquarters after Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned on Wednesday, joining a string of city officials ousted in the wake of a Justice Department report that found a culture of racism in the police department and city offices.

The report was triggered by the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in August, which set off weeks of sometimes violent protests in the St. Louis suburb.

It also concluded that police in Ferguson had used excessive and dangerous force and had disproportionately targeted blacks.

Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that the police had fostered a "highly toxic environment" of racism and misconduct that turned the city into a "powder keg."

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