Mass shootings at two mosques full of worshipers attending Friday prayers killed 49 people on what the prime minister called “one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” as authorities detained four people and defused explosive devices in what appeared to be a carefully planned racist attack.
One man has been charged with murder in the attacks and will appear in court Saturday, police say.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the events in Christchurch represented “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence” and acknowledged many of those affected may be migrants and refugees. In addition to the dead, she said 48 people were being treated for gunshot wounds, more than 20 were seriously wounded.
“It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” Ardern said.
Police took three men and a woman into custody after the shootings, which shocked people across the nation of 5 million people. While there was no reason to believe there were more suspects, Ardern said the national security threat level was being raised to the second-highest level.
Authorities have not specified who they detained, but said none had been on any watch list. A man who claimed responsibility for the shootings left a 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto in which he explained who he was and his reasoning for the attack. He said he was a 28-year-old white Australian and a racist. Television New Zealand (TVNZ) identified him as Brenton Tarrant from Grafton, New South Wales.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that one of the four people detained was an Australian-born citizen.
Ardern at a news conference alluded to anti-immigrant sentiment as the possible motive, saying that while many people affected by the shootings may be migrants or refugees “they have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.”
As for the suspects, Ardern said “these are people who I would describe as having extremist views that have absolutely no place in New Zealand.”
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said police were not aware of other suspects beyond the four who were detained but they couldn’t be certain.
“The attackers were apprehended by local police staff. There have been some absolute acts of bravery,” Bush said. “I’m hugely proud of our police staff, the way they responded to this. But let’s not presume the danger is gone.”
Bush said the defense force had defused a number of improvised explosive devices that were attached to vehicles stopped after the attacks.
He said anybody who was thinking of going to a mosque anywhere in New Zealand on Friday should stay put.
The deadliest attack occurred at the Masjid Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch about 1:45 p.m. Arden said 41 people were killed there.
One man who said he was at the Al Noor mosque told media the gunman was white, blond and wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest. The man burst into the mosque as worshippers were kneeling for prayers.
"He had a big gun ... he came and started shooting everyone in the mosque, everywhere," said the man, Ahmad Al-Mahmoud. He said he and others escaped by breaking through a glass door.
Witness Len Peneha said he saw a man dressed in black enter the mosque and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running from the mosque in terror.
Peneha, who lives next door to the mosque, said the gunman ran out of the mosque, dropped what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon in his driveway, and fled.
Peneha said he then went into the mosque to try and help.
“I saw dead people everywhere. There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque,” he said. “It’s unbelievable nutty. I don’t understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It’s ridiculous.”
He said he helped about five people recover in his home. He said one was slightly injured.
“I’ve lived next door to this mosque for about five years and the people are great, they’re very friendly,” he said. “I just don’t understand it.”
He said the gunman was white and was wearing a helmet with some kind of device on top, giving him a military-type appearance.
A video that was apparently livestreamed by the shooter shows the attack in horrifying detail. The gunman spends more than two minutes inside the mosque spraying terrified worshippers with bullets again and again, sometimes firing again at people he has already cut down.
He then walks outside to the street, where he shoots at people on the sidewalk. Children’s screams can be heard in the distance as he returns to his car to get another rifle. Children were among the wounded.
The gunman then walks back into the mosque, where there are at least two dozen people lying on the ground. After walking back outside and shooting a woman there, he gets back in his car, where the song “Fire” by English rock band “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” can be heard blasting from the speakers. The singer bellows, “I am the god of hellfire!” and the gunman drives away. The video then cuts out.
Second mosque attacked
There was a second shooting at the Linwood Masjid Mosque that Ardern said killed 10 people.
Mark Nichols told the New Zealand Herald he heard about five gunshots and that a Friday prayer-goer returned fire with a rifle or shotgun.
Nichols said he saw two injured people being carried out on stretchers past his automotive shop and that both people appeared to be alive.
Man claims responsibility
The man who claimed responsibility for the shooting said he came to New Zealand only to plan and train for the attack. He said he was not a member of any organization, but had donated to and interacted with many nationalist groups, though he acted alone and no group ordered the attack.
He said the mosques in Christchurch and Linwood would be the targets, as would a third mosque in the town of Ashburton if he could make it there.
He said he chose New Zealand because of its location, to show that even the most remote parts of the world were not free of “mass immigration.”
Cricket team’s narrow escape
New Zealand is generally considered to be a welcoming country for immigrants and refugees. Last year, the prime minister announced the country would boost its annual refugee quota from 1,000 to 1,500 starting in 2020. Ardern, whose party campaigned on the promise of raising the intake of refugees, dubbed the planned increase “the right thing to do.”
A cricket match between New Zealand and Bangladesh scheduled to start Saturday was canceled after the Bangladesh cricket team had a narrow escape.
Players and members of the team’s coaching staff were reportedly on their bus, approaching the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Hagley Park when the shooting broke out.
Batsman Tamim Iqbal tweeted “entire team got saved from active shooters. Frightening experience and please keep us in your prayers.”