Forty people were killed in a terrorist attack at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as an “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence”.
Authorities said four people – three men and a woman – were in custody, adding that they had defused a number of explosive devices in what appeared to be a carefully coordinated attack.
“This is one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” Adern said. She later announced that the country had been placed on its highest security threat level.
A man who claimed responsibility for the shootings posted online links to a 74-page white-nationalist manifesto, in which he explained who he was and his reasoning for his actions. One post was on Twitter and another was to the online forum 8chan, which included a link to what appeared to be his Facebook page, where he said he would later broadcast live video of the attack.
Ardern later said that the four people held in custody held extremist views, but had not been on any police watch lists.
‘It doesn’t get any more serious’
Police Commissioner Mike Bush stopped short of calling the shootings a terrorist attack, although said “it doesn’t get any more serious in this country.”
He 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.”
He said anybody who was thinking of going to a mosque anywhere in New Zealand on Friday should stay put.
‘Dead people everywhere’
The deadliest of the two shootings occurred at the Masjid Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch at about 1:45 p.m.
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.
Police said the second shooting was at the Linwood Masjid Mosque.
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.
In the online manifesto, the man who claimed responsibility for the shooting said he was a 28-year-old white Australian who 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.”
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.”
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.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)