At least one gunman killed 49 people and wounded more than 20 during Friday prayers at two New Zealand mosques in the country’s worst ever mass shooting, condemned as terrorism by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
A gunman broadcast live footage on Facebook of the attack on one mosque in Christchurch, mirroring the carnage in video games, after publishing a “manifesto” denouncing immigrants, calling them “invaders”.
New Zealand was placed on its highest security threat level, Ardern said, adding four people taken into custody held extremist views but were not on any police watchlists.
“It is clear this can only be described as a terrorist attack,” Ardern said, calling it “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”.
Police said three people were in custody and a man in his late 20s was charged with murder. He will appear in court on Saturday.
The visiting Bangladesh cricket team was arriving for prayers at one mosque when shooting started but all were safe, a team coach told Reuters.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said 49 people were killed.
Video footage circulated on social media, apparently taken by a gunman and posted online live as the attack unfolded, showed him driving to a mosque, entering and shooting randomly at people.
Worshippers, possibly dead or wounded, huddled on the floor, the video showed. Reuters was unable to confirm authenticity of the footage.
A man who said he was at the Al Noor mosque told media the gunman was white, blond and wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest. The man burst into the mosque as worshippers were kneeling for prayers.
“He had a big gun. He came and started shooting everyone in the mosque, everywhere,” said the man, Ahmad Al-Mahmoud. He and others escaped by breaking through a glass door.
Forty-one people were killed at the Al Noor mosque, seven at a mosque in the Linwood neighbourhood and one died in hospital, police said. Hospitals said children were among the victims.
Shortly before the attack, an anonymous post on the discussion site 8chan, known for content including hate speech, said the writer was going to “carry out an attack against the invaders” and included links to a Facebook live stream, where the shooting appeared, and a manifesto.
The manifesto cited “white genocide”, a term typically used by racist groups referring to immigration and growth of minority populations, as his motivation.
The Facebook link directed users to the page of a user called brenton.tarrant.9.
A Twitter account with the handle @brentontarrant posted images of a rifle and other military gear decorated with names and messages connected to white nationalism earlier. What looked like the same weapons appeared in the livestream of the mosque attack.
It was not immediately clear if the attacks at the mosques were by the same man.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one man in custody was Australian.
All mosques in New Zealand were asked to shut their doors and post armed guards, police said, adding they were not actively looking for other “identified suspects”.
Political and Islamic leaders across Asia and the Middle East condemned the killings.
“I blame increasing terror attacks on the current Islamophobia post-9/11,” Pakistan prime minister, Imran Khan, posted on social media. “1.3 billion Muslims have collectively been blamed for any act of terror.”
Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s 1000-year-old seat of Sunni Islamic learning, said the attacks “violated the sanctity of the houses of God”.
“We warn the attack is a dangerous indicator of the dire consequences of escalating hate speech, xenophobia and the spread of Islamophobia.”
Six Indonesians were in one mosque, with three escaping and three unaccounted for, its foreign minister said.
Afghanistan’s ambassador said on Twitter three Afghans were wounded. Two Malaysians were wounded, their foreign ministry said.
Muslims account for just over a percent of New Zealand’s population, a 2013 census showed.
‘FIRING WENT ON AND ON’
Online footage, apparently shot on a camera strapped to the gunman’s head, showed him driving as music played in his vehicle. After parking, he took two guns and walked a short distance to the mosque where he opened fire.
Over the course of five minutes, he repeatedly shot worshippers, leaving more than a dozen bodies in one room. He returned to the car to change guns and went back to shoot anyone showing signs of life.
A man with blood on his shirt said in a television interview he hid under a bench and prayed he would run out of bullets.
“I was just praying to God and hoping our God, please, let this guy stop” Mahmood Nazeer told TVNZ.
“The firing went on and on. A woman with us had a bullet in her arm. When the shooting stopped, I looked over the fence, there was a guy, changing his gun.”
The video shows the gunman driving off at speed and firing from the car. Another video showed police apprehending a gunman on a pavement.
Police said improvised explosive devices were found. The gunman’s video showed red petrol canisters in his car, along with weapons.
The Bangladesh cricket team is in Christchurch to play New Zealand in a third cricket test starting on Saturday.
“They were on the bus pulling up to the mosque when the shooting begun,” Mario Villavarayen, a team coach, told Reuters in a message. “They are shaken but good.”
The cricket test was cancelled, New Zealand Cricket said later.
Violent crime is rare in New Zealand and police are not usually armed.
Before Friday, New Zealand’s worst mass shooting was in 1990 when a gun-mad loner killed 13 men, women and children in a 24-hour rampage in the seaside village Aramoana. He was killed by police.