A “right-wing extremist” armed with semi-automatic weapons rampaged through two mosques in the quiet New Zealand city of Christchurch during afternoon prayers Friday, killing 49 worshippers and wounding dozens more.
The attack, thought to be the deadliest against Muslims in the West in modern times, was immediately dubbed terrorism by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as she guided a shocked nation on one of its “darkest days.”
The attacker live-streamed footage of him going room-to-room, victim to victim, shooting the wounded from close range as they struggled to crawl away.
A 28-year-old Australian-born man has been arrested and charged with murder.
He is set to appear at the Christchurch District Court early Saturday. Two other men remain in custody, although their link to the attack is unknown.
The chief suspect allegedly published a racist “manifesto” on social media before the attack, featuring conspiracy theories about Europeans being displaced, and details of two years of preparation and radicalisation leading up to the shootings.
“It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” said Ardern. “From what we know, it does appear to have been well planned.”
Two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were found in a car and neutralised by the military, police said.
Speaking in Sydney, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the gunman as “an extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist”.
His two targets were the Masjid al Noor mosque, where 41 people died, and a second, smaller mosque in the suburb of Linwood, where seven more died. The remaining victim succumbed in hospital.
The dead were said to include women and children. Around 48 people were treated for gunshot wounds at Christchurch Hospital, including young children, with injuries ranging from critical to minor.
The survivors included 17 members of Bangladesh’s cricket team, whose game against New Zealand on Saturday has been postponed, and a Palestinian man who fled for his life after seeing someone being shot in the head.
“I heard three quick shots, then after about 10 seconds it started again. It must have been an automatic — no one could pull a trigger that quick,” the man who did not wish to be named, told AFP.
“Then people started running out. Some were covered in blood,” he said.
New Zealand police described the footage shot by the gunman as “extremely distressing” and warned web users that they could be liable for up to 10 years in jail for sharing such “objectionable content”.
In addition to the footage — which AFP has verified, but is not distributing — a number of pictures were posted to a social media account showing a semi-automatic weapon covered in the names of historical figures, many of whom were involved in the killing of Muslims.
The attack has shocked New Zealanders, who are used to seeing around 50 murders a year in the entire country of 4.8 million and pride themselves on living in a secure and welcoming place.
Police, who initially imposed a city-wide lockdown, sent armed officers to a number of scenes and the threat level in the nation was raised from “low” to “high”.
In Auckland, 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) away, two unattended bags left near a railway station were detonated by military explosives experts.
Police also attended a property in Dunedin which they believe is linked to the attack and evacuated nearby residents.
The southeastern city was named in the suspect’s manifesto as the original target for his attack.
Police warned Muslims all over the country not to visit mosques “anywhere in New Zealand” in the wake of the Christchurch attacks. Friday is Islam’s holy day.
Christchurch city council offered a helpline for parents looking for kids attending a mass climate change rally near the shooting.
– ‘Darkest day’ –
The attack has shocked the local Muslim population, many of whom had come to New Zealand as refugees.
The Ardern government has been vocal in its support for opening the doors to those suffering from wars in Syria, Afghanistan and beyond.
One witness told stuff.co.nz he was praying when he heard shooting — and then saw his wife lying dead on the footpath outside when he fled.
Another man said he saw children being shot.
“There were bodies all over,” he said.
The Bangladesh cricket team — which had been in Christchurch for a test match and was about to go into the mosque when the attack happened — all escaped without injury.
“They are safe. But they are mentally shocked. We have asked the team to stay confined in the hotel,” he told AFP.
Mass shootings are very rare in New Zealand, which tightened its gun laws to restrict access to semi-automatic rifles in 1992, two years after a mentally ill man shot dead 13 people in the South Island town of Aramoana.
However, anyone over 16 can apply for a standard firearms licence after doing a safety course, which allows them to purchase and use a shotgun unsupervised.
Christchurch, a relatively small city on New Zealand’s south island, hit global headlines in 2011 when it was struck by a deadly earthquake.
More than 180 people died and the city’s historic cathedral was toppled in the disaster. AFP