Three people have died in clashes between white nationalist demonstrators and counter protesters while rallying against plans to remove a statue of a pro-slavery US Civil War general after a car plowed into the crowd.

Members of white nationalists clash a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, US, August 12, 2017.
Members of white nationalists clash a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, US, August 12, 2017.

At least three people were killed and dozens of others injured in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday when white nationalists protesting plans to remove the statue of a Confederate general clashed with counter-demonstrators and a car plowed into a crowd, officials said.

The clashes prompted the governor to declare an emergency and halt the rally, and President Donald Trump condemned the violence. The driver of the car has been taken into custody, USA Today reported, citing the state's secretary of public safety.

"I am heartbroken that a life has been lost here," Charlottesville Mayor Mike Singer said on his Twitter feed. "I urge all people of good will - go home."

TRT World's Jon Brain brings more from Washington.

Video on social media and Reuters photographs showed a car slamming into a large group of what appeared to be counter-protesters, sending people flying into the air.

The University of Virginia Health Systems received 20 patients from the scene near the car strike.

The City of Charlottesville said 15 people were injured at the site of the rally.

"We're closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia," Trump told reporters at his New Jersey golf course.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides."

A reporter shouted a question to Trump about whether he had spoken out strongly enough against white nationalists but the president made no comment.

The clashes highlights a resurfacing of the white supremacist movement under the "alt-right" banner after years in the shadow of mainstream American politics.

"You will not erase us," chanted a crowd of white nationalists, while counter-protesters carried placards that read: "Nazi go home" and "Smash white supremacy."

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, US August 11, 2017. Picture taken August 11, 2017. (Reuters)
White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, US August 11, 2017. Picture taken August 11, 2017. (Reuters)

Tensions in the city intensified when the vehicle plowed into a crowd of people gathered in a street two blocks from the park that houses the statue of Robert E. Lee, who headed the Confederate army in the American Civil War.

The Charlottesville confrontation was a stark reminder of the growing political polarisation that has intensified since Trump's election last year.

A video shown on CNN showed a silver sedan driving at high speed into the crowd before reversing along the same street.

Witnesses said it looked like the driver intended to mow down people. Police have not offered any details on the car incident.

"From what I saw, it looked extremely deliberate," Will Mafei, 23, of Charlottesville said. He also witnessed the car hitting pedestrians as it went in reverse.

Earlier, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency in the city, home of the University of Virginia's flagship campus. The gathering was declared an "unlawful assembly," allowing police to disperse the protesters, and police cleared the park where the rally was to be held.

"I am praying that God help us all," Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy said in an interview with CNN. "We are better than this."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies