One person is dead and 19 others are injured after a car ploughed through crowds at an already violent protest between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Virginia.

Witnesses said a car rammed into a crowd of people who were protesting the rally, which was held by white nationalists who oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee by the city of Charlottesville.

University of Virginia Medical Center spokeswoman Angela Taylor confirmed the death to The Associated Press.

The mayor of Charlottesville tweeted he was "heartbroken" to announce that a "life has been lost". He did not provide details.

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US President Donald Trump asked Americans to rise above hatred and bigotry to silence violent protests.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides," Trump told reporters at his New Jersey golf course. "We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation and true affection for each other."

Matt Korbon, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, said counter-protesters were marching when "suddenly there was just this tire screeching sound." A silver sedan smashed into another car, then backed up, plowing through "a sea of people."

People scattered, running for safety in different directions, he said.

It happened about two hours after violent clashes broke out between white nationalists, who descended on the town to rally against the city's plans to remove the Lee statue.

Some people were pinned between the car that rammed the crowd and other cars it struck, according to the witness. It remains unclear if the driver of the car has been apprehended.

Hundreds of people chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays. At least eight were injured and one arrested in connection to the earlier violence.

In an earlier tweet on Sunday (NZT), President Donald Trump wrote: "We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!"

Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, and police dressed in riot gear ordered people out.

Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler had called for what he termed a "pro-white" rally to protest the city of Charlottesville's decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park.

A white nationalist demonstrator, bloodied after a clash with a counter demonstrator. Photo / AP
A white nationalist demonstrator, bloodied after a clash with a counter demonstrator. Photo / AP

Colleen Cook, 26, stood on a curb shouting at the rally attendees to go home.

Cook, a teacher who attended the University of Virginia, said she sent her son, who is black, out of town for the weekend.

"This isn't how he should have to grow up," she said.

Cliff Erickson leaned against a fence and took in the scene. He said he thinks removing the statue amounts to erasing history and said the "counterprotesters are crazier than the alt-right."

"Both sides are hoping for a confrontation," he said.

It's the latest confrontation in Charlottesville since the city about 100 miles outside of Washington, D.C., voted earlier this year to remove a statue of Lee.

In May, a torch-wielding group that included prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer gathered around the statue for a nighttime protest, and in July, about 50 members of a North Carolina-based KKK group traveled there for a rally, where they were met by hundreds of counter-protesters.

A counter demonstrator gets a splash of water after being hit by pepper spray at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville. Photo / AP
A counter demonstrator gets a splash of water after being hit by pepper spray at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville. Photo / AP

Kessler said this week that the rally is partly about the removal of Confederate symbols but also about free speech and "advocating for white people."

"This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do," he said in an interview.

Between rally attendees and counter-protesters, authorities were expecting as many as 6,000 people, Charlottesville police said this week.

Among those expected to attend are Confederate heritage groups, KKK members, militia groups and "alt-right" activists, who generally espouse a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.

Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which track extremist groups, said the event has the potential to be the largest of its kind in at least a decade.

Officials have been preparing for the rally for months. Virginia State Police will be assisting local authorities, and a spokesman said the Virginia National Guard "will closely monitor the situation and will be able to rapidly respond and provide additional assistance if needed."

Police instituted road closures around downtown, and many businesses in the popular open-air shopping mall opted to close for the day.

Both local hospitals said they had taken precautions to prepare for an influx of patients and had extra staff on call.

There were also fights Friday night, when hundreds of white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches.

A university spokesman said one person was arrested and several people were injured.

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said he was disgusted that the white nationalists had come to his town and blamed President Donald Trump for inflaming racial prejudices with his campaign last year.

"I'm not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you're seeing in American today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president."

Charlottesville, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a liberal-leaning city that's home to the flagship University of Virginia and Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

The statue's removal is part of a broader city effort to change the way Charlottesville's history of race is told in public spaces. The city has also renamed Lee Park, where the statue stands, and Jackson Park, named for Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. They're now called Emancipation Park and Justice Park, respectively.

For now, the Lee statue remains. A group called the Monument Fund filed a lawsuit arguing that removing the statue would violate a state law governing war memorials. A judge has agreed to a temporary injunction that blocks the city from removing the statue for six months.

- AP