CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - Shootings at two mosques full of worshippers killed 49 people Friday on what the prime minister called “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.” Authorities charged one person, detained three others and defused explosive devices in what appeared to be a carefully planned racist attack.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the events in Christchurch represented “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence” and acknowledged that many of those affected may be migrants and refugees. In addition to the dead, she said more than 20 people 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.
One suspect was charged with murder.
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.
He said he came to New Zealand only to plan and train for the attack. He said he had acted alone and was not a member of any organization, but had donated to and interacted with many nationalist groups.
He said he chose New Zealand to show that even the remotest parts of the world are not free of “mass immigration.”
New Zealand is considered a welcoming country for immigrants and refugees. Last year, Ardern 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.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that one of the four people detained was a citizen born in Australia.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said Friday night that a man had been charged with murder. He did not mention the other three suspects and did not say whether the same shooter was responsible for both attacks.
In the manifesto, the man who claimed responsibility said the mosques in Christchurch and Linwood, a suburb east of the center of Christchurch, would be the targets — as would a third mosque in the town of Ashburton if he could make it there.
Ardern alluded to anti-immigrant sentiment as the possible motive, saying that although 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.”
Bush said police had found two improvised explosive devices in one car.
The deadlier of the two attacks occurred at the Masjid Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch at about 1:45 p.m. At least 30 people were killed there.
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 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. He then went into the mosque to try to 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. “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 re-firing 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.
The gunman walks back into the mosque, where at least two dozen people are lying on the floor. After walking back outside and shooting a woman, he gets back in his car, where the song “Fire” by the 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.
There was a second shooting at the Linwood Masjid Mosque that killed at least 10 people.
Mark Nichols told the New Zealand Herald that he heard about five gunshots and that a Friday prayer-goer returned fire with a rifle or shotgun.
Mass shootings in New Zealand are exceedingly rare. The deadliest in modern history occurred in the small town of Aramoana in 1990, when gunman David Gray shot and killed 13 people following a dispute with a neighbor.