At least 49 people were killed and 48 wounded in mass shootings at two mosques full of worshippers attending Friday prayers in an attack broadcast in horrifying, live video by an immigrant-hating white supremacist wielding at least two assault rifles and a shotgun.
One man was arrested and charged with murder, and two other armed suspects were taken into custody while police tried to determine what role they played. “It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, noting that many of the victims could be migrants or refugees. She pronounced it “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”. The cold-blooded attack shocked people across the nation of 5 million people, a country that has relatively loose gun laws but few gun homicides and is so peaceful police officers rarely carry firearms. New Zealand is also generally considered to be welcoming to migrants and refugees.
The gunman behind at least one of the mosque shootings left a 74-page manifesto that he posted on social media under the name Brenton Tarrant, identifying himself as a 28-year-old Australian and white nationalist who was out to avenge attacks in Europe perpetrated by Muslims.
Using what may have been a helmet camera, he live-streamed to the world in graphic detail his rampage at Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque, where at least 41 people were killed as he sprayed them with bullets over and over, sometimes firing at victims he had already cut down. Several more worshippers were killed in an attack on a second mosque in the city a short time later.
Police did not immediately say whether the same person was responsible for both shootings. They did not identify those taken into custody and gave no details about them except to say that none had been on any watch list.
While there was no reason to believe there were any more suspects, the Prime Minister said the national threat level was raised from low to high. Police warned Muslims against going to a mosque anywhere in New Zealand. And Air New Zealand cancelled several flights in and out of Christchurch.
Police said the investigation extended 360 km to the south, where homes in Dunedin were evacuated around a “location of interest”. They gave no details.
Ardern said that immigrants and refugees “have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us”. As for the suspects, Ardern said, they harbour “extremist views that have absolutely no place in New Zealand”.’
Witness Len Peneha said he saw a man dressed in black and wearing a helmet with some kind of device on top enter the Al Noor mosque and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running out in terror.
Peneha, who lives next door, said the gunman ran out of the mosque, dropped what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon in his driveway and fled. He said he then went into the mosque to try to help the victims.
“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. “I don’t understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It’s ridiculous.’’
In the video that was live-streamed, the gunman spends more than two minutes inside the mosque spraying terrified worshippers gunfire. He then walks outside, 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. The gunman walks back into the mosque, where there are at least two dozen people lying on the ground.
After going back outside and shooting a woman there, he gets back in his car, where the song “Fire” by the English rock band The Crazy World of Arthur Brown can be heard blasting. The singer bellows, “I am the god of hellfire!’” and the gunman drives away. The second attack took place at the Linwood mosque about 5 km away. Mark Nichols told the New Zealand Herald that he heard about five gunshots and that a prayer-goer returned fire with a rifle or shotgun. Nichols said he saw two wounded people being carried out on stretchers past his automotive shop.
Based on the video, the attacker was at the scene of the first mosque for about 10 minutes, and police did not arrive until after that.
The footage showed he was carrying a shotgun and two fully automatic military assault rifles, with an extra magazine taped to one of the weapons so that he could reload quickly. He also had more assault weapons in the trunk of his car, along with what appeared to be explosives.
The gunman said he was not a member of any organisation, acted alone and chose New Zealand to show that even the most remote parts of the world are not free of “mass immigration”.
Last year, Ardern announced that the country would boost its annual refugee quota from 1,000 to 1,500 starting in 2020. Ardern, whose party campaigned on a promise to take in more refugees, called it right thing to do”.
Christchurch is home to nearly 4 lakh people and is sometimes called the Garden City. It has been rebuilding since an earthquake in 2011 killed 185 people and destroyed many downtown buildings.
Before Friday’s attack, New Zealand’s deadliest shooting in modern history took place in the small town of Aramoana in 1990, when a gunman killed 13 people following a dispute with a neighbour.