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Investigators believe the victims, found early Saturday in at least three locations in or near Lower Manhattan, were hit with a metal object as they slept.

NEW YORK -- A homeless man wielding a long metal pipe rampaged through New York City early Saturday attacking other homeless people who were sleeping, killing four and leaving a fifth with serious injuries, police said.

A 24-year-old suspect was in custody but has yet to be charged. Police recovered the weapon that was still in the suspect's hands when he was arrested, officials said.

"The motive appears to be, right now, just random attacks," Chief of Manhattan South Detectives Michael Baldassano said at a Saturday news conference, adding there was no evidence yet that the victims were "targeted by race, age, anything of that nature."

The victims were attacked as they slept in doorways and sidewalks in Manhattan's Chinatown section, which is packed during daylight hours but empties out at night.

Police responded to a 911 call just before 2 a.m. as one assault was in progress. They found one man dead in the street and a second with critical head injuries.

A search of the neighbourhood turned up two additional bodies.

The New York Post published photos of two of the victims under white sheets, one slumped in a blood-spattered doorway, the other on the sidewalk. The identities of the victims have not been released.

Two of the men were killed on The Bowery, which cuts through the heart of Chinatown and has for decades been known as New York's skid row. Two more died on East Broadway, the neighbourhood's main street.

The lone known survivor of the attacks was hospitalized in critical condition. Police planned to question him as soon as possible, Baldassano said.

Another homeless man who had slept in the area, Stephen Miller, said he knew one of the victims as kind and quiet.

"No one knew him by name, but we saw him every day," Miller said. "At this point, I'm just sad. This guy never did anything. Just had a life to live. It sucks that he's out here in the rain and everything but it doesn't mean he doesn't have a life to live."

New York City's homeless population has grown to record levels over the past decade, and the homeless remain among the city's most vulnerable residents. Over the last five years, an average of seven have been slain each year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio launched new homeless outreach efforts early in his tenure in an attempt to move more people off the street and into shelters, but the program has faced challenges. City efforts to build more homeless shelters have dragged due to neighbourhood opposition.

De Blasio tweeted Saturday that he's "stunned and horrified by this senseless act of violence against the most vulnerable members of our community."

The attacks happened in one of the few downtown Manhattan areas that has retained its character as a centre for new immigrants, through gentrification has started to creep in lately.

During the day, it bustles with small shops, restaurants and markets doing business in Chinese, as a mix of residents and tourists pack the sidewalks. At night it can be desolate in some sections.