Written by Tracy Withers
New Zealand’s worst mass shooting in modern history appears to be the act of a lone gunman who attacked worshippers at two mosques out of racial hatred.
The death toll from Friday’s massacre in the South Island city of Christchurch has risen to 50 after another victim was located at one of the crime scenes, police said on Sunday. One person has been charged with murder while three other people apprehended with firearms are not believed to be involved, they said.
“At this point, only one person has been charged in relation to these attacks,” Commissioner Mike Bush told reporters. “I will not be saying anything conclusive until we are absolutely convinced as to how many people were involved.”
Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian man, appeared in the Christchurch District Court yesterday charged with one count of murder. He entered no plea and was remanded in custody until April 5. He is expected to face further charges, police said.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she is seeking advice on Tarrant’s possible deportation to Australia but it was too soon to say whether that is likely.
“He will certainly face the justice system of New Zealand for the terrorist act he committed here,” she told a news conference on Sunday. “As for the remainder I am seeking advice. I don’t want to pre-empt anything.”
New Zealand is reeling from the apparently well-planned attack that the perpetrator filmed and live-streamed to social media. Early Friday afternoon, he walked into a packed central city mosque and opened fire, killing more than 40 people. He then drove across the city to another mosque and continued the rampage.
Fifty people were injured and 34 remain in Christchurch hospital, 12 of whom are in a critical condition. A four-year-old girl who was transferred to Auckland’s Starship hospital also remains critical.
Tarrant grew up in the small Australian city of Grafton and worked in a local gym as a personal trainer, Australia’s Nine News reported. He left his job in 2010 after the death of his father and traveled extensively. Turkey has confirmed he spent considerable time there, and there are reports he also visited Pakistan, North Korea and Eastern Europe.
Turkey’s Vice President and Foreign Affairs Minister will visit Christchurch over the next two days to pay their respects and meet with members of the Muslim community, Ardern said.
She said yesterday that Tarrant spent “sporadic periods of time” in New Zealand and most recently lived in the southern city of Dunedin. He attended a local gym and was a member of the Bruce Rifle Club in the south Otago town of Milton, local media reported.
Police recovered two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm after the attacks. Tarrant had a category-A gun license which meant he could legally buy the weapons he used, although there are suggestions they were altered to make them more lethal.
Ardern indicated she will move quickly to tighten gun laws, saying a ban on semi-automatic weapons is one possibility that will be discussed by ministers tomorrow.
Gun shops reported increased sales of firearms around the country on Saturday, including semi-automatics, ammunition and magazines, as people rushed to acquire them before the government acts, according to the Newsroom website.
Police said Tarrant was arrested as he fled in a car from the second mosque about 36 minutes after the first call of the attacks came in. He was a direct threat and officers “had to use some force” to effect the arrest, Bush said. Video footage shows armed police pinning the gunman to the ground after running his car off the road in a city street. Two home-made bombs were found in the vehicle.
“The offender was mobile, there were two other firearms in the vehicle the offender was in,” Ardern said yesterday. “It was absolutely his intention to continue with his attack.”
Tarrant didn’t appear on any government security watch-list, nor did he have a criminal record in New Zealand. Officials are reviewing whether his actions on social media should have brought him to the attention of intelligence agencies.
Tarrant posted a manifesto online before the attack, suggesting a racially-motivated act of terrorism. In a rambling document that’s dozens of pages long, he says he was inspired by Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who was responsible for the deaths of 77 people in 2011.
The document was sent to more than 30 addresses including the prime minister’s office about nine minutes before the first emergency calls were received, Ardern said Sunday. There was no indication of a time or location of any actual attack in the document, she said.
Police are working to quickly establish the identities of the victims before returning them to families for burial in line with Muslim custom. While no official list has been provided, several names have been revealed by relatives, among them people from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Somalia.
The events have shocked New Zealand, a peaceful nation of just under five million people in the South Pacific where gun violence is relatively rare. There has been an outpouring of grief and emotion around the country as it struggles to comprehend how something so violent could occur.
The death toll surpasses the 49 killed during a prisoner of war camp riot in 1943 and is New Zealand’s worst mass murder since before European settlement in the 1800s.