'One of New Zealand's darkest days': 49 killed in terrorist attack at mosques in New Zealand
Forty-nine people are dead and scores more are seriously injured after a heavily armed gunman clad in military-style gear opened fire during prayers at a mosque in the center of Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday. A second mosque was also targeted in what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called a well-planned "terrorist attack" making for "one of New Zealand's darkest days."
Authorities said they had four people in custody -- three men and one women -- but later clarified that only three were believed to have been involved in the violence. One man in his late 20s, whom the authorities declined to name, was charged with murder and was expected to appear in court on Saturday morning. The suspects had not been on security watch lists, officials said.
Police had also deactivated an improvised explosive device, and were working to disarm a second, that had been attached to a vehicle used by the suspects. Counterterrorism forces were activated across New Zealand and Australia, as New Zealand elevated its national security threat level to "high" for the first time.
New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said 41 people had been killed at Al Noor mosque on Deans Road, opposite a large downtown park. Seven more were fatally shot about three miles away at a mosque in Linwood, an inner suburb of Christchurch, and another person died at the hospital.
Health officials said 48 patients, including both young children and adults, were being treated for gunshot wounds at Christchurch Hospital, while additional victims were seeking medical treatment elsewhere. Around 200 family members were at the hospital awaiting news about loved ones.
Portions of the ghastly attack at the downtown mosque were broadcast live on social media by a man who police confirmed had also released a manifesto railing against Muslims and immigrants. Meanwhile, the digital platforms apparently enlisted by the suspects highlights a distinctly 21st-century dimension of mass gun violence -- one sure to put more pressure on social media companies already under scrutiny about how they police their services.
Schools and public buildings, as well as the Christchurch Hospital, were on lockdown for hours on Friday afternoon as the police commissioner advised residents of Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, to stay off the streets.
Bush appealed to Muslims nationwide, asking them to stay away from mosques while the security risk remained grave.
"I want to ask anyone that was thinking of going to a mosque anywhere in New Zealand today not to go, to close your doors until you hear from us again," he said at a news conference.
In a country of nearly 5 million, more than 46,000 residents are Muslim, according to data from the 2013 census, up 28 percent from 2006.
The prime minister said New Zealand had suffered "an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence," lamenting in particular that a target had been placed on the country's migrant population. "Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand. They may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home."
"They are us," Ardern intoned.
The "extremist views" that she said had motivated the alleged attackers, "have absolutely no place in New Zealand, and, in fact, have no place in the world."
She said the suspects had chosen New Zealand "because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values." Addressing the suspects directly, she said, "You may have chosen us. But we utterly reject and condemn you."
Gun laws in New Zealand are more stringent than American regulations, but not as strict as those in Australia and much of Europe. In 2017, more than 1.2 million guns were held by civilians, according to a tracking website maintained by the University of Sydney School of Public Health.
New restrictions came into effect, including on military style semi-automatic weapons, after what had previously been deadliest shooting in New Zealand's modern history. In 1990, 13 people were killed in the seaside town of Aramoana when a resident, David Gray, went on a shooting spree after an argument with a neighbor.
Violent crime is rare in New Zealand, compared to the rest of the world. The country's murder rate fell to a 40-year low of 35 in 2017, police said, seven deaths for every 1 million people.
The sense of tranquillity reflected in those figures was replaced by mayhem and desperation, as residents appeared on local television pleading for information about family members who had been at the targeted mosques during Friday prayers.
Recalling the scene inside the downtown mosque, where several hundred had been present for afternoon prayer, an eyewitness told Radio New Zealand, "There was blood everywhere." Others described to local television how they heard fellow worshippers crying out for help and saw bullet shells strewn across the floor.
Video on social media of the attack's aftermath showed a state of disbelief, as mosque-goers huddled around the injured and dead. Amid anguished cries, a person can be heard saying "there is no God but God," the beginning of the Muslim profession of faith.
Ikhlaq Kashkari, president of the New Zealand Muslim Association, thanked police and urged "all New Zealanders to stay calm and united," according to local media.
Jill Keats, 66, told Newshub she was on her way to lunch when she heard noises that she thought at first were firecrackers. Then, she saw victims come streaming out of the mosque, some of whom she helped find medical aide. "I never thought in my life I would see something like this," she said. "Not in New Zealand."
Among those inside the mosque in downtown Christchurch were members of Bangladesh's national cricket team, according to a Bangladeshi journalist, Mohammad Isam. The ESPNcricinfo correspondent posted a video on Twitter of the cricket players hurrying through nearby Hagley Park as sirens wailed in the background.
The mayor of Christchurch, Lianne Dalziel, addressed residents in a Facebook video on Friday, asking them to remain calm. "It looks as though the worst has happened," she said.
Government ministers voiced shock and outrage. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, speaking on Checkpoint, said the country had been robbed of its "innocence," while Andrew Little, the justice minister, affirmed, "There is no place for hate in New Zealand."
Officials in Australia, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, expressed solidarity. Morrison, speaking to reporters Friday evening, confirmed that one of the individuals taken into custody was an Australian-born citizen. Morrison called the suspect "an extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist."
Marise Payne, Australia's minister for foreign affairs, said, "Targeting people in a place of worship is abhorrent and an affront to all."
World leaders joined in condemning the attack and expressing support for New Zealand. British Prime Minister Theresa May offered her condolences, and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said he would increase security at London mosques. Security was stepped up in other European counties as well.
European Council President Donald Tusk predicted that the attack would not "diminish the tolerance and decency that New Zealand is famous for," and sad, "Our thoughts in Europe are with the victims and their families."
Officials in Muslim-majority countries deplored the violence visited on the mosques.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed a message "to the Islamic world and the people of New Zealand, who have been targeted by this deplorable act," which he described as "the latest example of rising racism and Islamophobia." Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs in the United Arab Emirates wrote on Twitter that "our collective work against violence & hate must continue with renewed vigor." A statement from Saudi Arabia said the kingdom condemned "terrorism in all its forms and manifestations."
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The Washington Post's Kareem Fahim and Amar Nadhir contributed to this report.