At least 49 people have been killed and 20 others wounded in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, after a gunman opened indiscriminate fire at worshippers, some as they were kneeling at prayer.
The mosques targeted in Friday’s attack, the worst mass shooting in the country’s history, were the Masjid Al Noor in central Christchurch and another place of worship in the suburb of Linwood. Women and children were among those killed.
A 28-year-old Australian man, who police did not identify, was charged with murder. He is set to appear in court on Saturday.
Two other men and one woman were arrested in connection with the attack, two of whom remain in custody.
Two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were found in a car and neutralised by the military, police said.
Authorities have also warned Muslims not to visit mosques “anywhere in New Zealand”.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the assault on the mosques appeared to be a well-planned “terrorist attack”.
“This is, and will be, one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” an ashen-faced Ardern told a press conference.
|Photo courtesy of Google Maps|
Sam Clarke, a reporter with TVNZ, spoke with several people inside the Masjid Al Noor mosque when the shooting began. He told Al Jazeera a man entered with an automatic weapon and began firing.
“A gunman – dressed in black with a helmet carrying a machine gun – came into the back of the mosque and started firing into the people praying there,” Clarke said.
‘An extremist, right-wing terrorist’
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the suspect charged with murder was an Australian citizen and described him as “an extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist”.
He said Australian security authorities were investigating any links between the country and the attack, but declined to provide further details about the suspected gunman.
The 28-year-old suspect published a racist manifesto on Twitter before the shooting, then livestreamed his rampage on Facebook.
Police have asked people not to share the footage, which was circulated online following the attack, and are working to have it removed. Officials also warned web users they could be liable for up to 10 years in jail for sharing such “objectionable content”.
|Police patrol outside the Masjid Al Noor in central Christchurch [Mark Baker/AP]|
Len Peneha, a witness, said he saw a man dressed in black enter the Masjid Al Noor mosque and then heard dozens of shots, which sent people running from the place of worship in terror.
He said he also saw the gunman flee before emergency services arrived.
Peneha, who lives next to the mosque, said he went into the building to try and help and “saw dead people everywhere”.
One man in the mosque, with blood stains all over his clothes, said he hid under a bench as the shooting took place. He said about 50 people were inside the building.
Sam Clarke said some worshippers managed to escape through windows and doors but “many people had been hit, some as young as 16”.
About 10 to 15 people were seen outside the mosque, “some alive, some dead”, he said.
Farid Ahmed, a wheelchair-bound witness in Christchurch, told Al Jazeera he was at the back of the mosque and heard the shooting for about seven minutes.
“I pushed myself at the back where my car was parked and I was behind the car. And from there I was hearing shooting after shooting,” he said.
“After about 10 minutes, I thought the shooter has left. I pushed myself to get inside the mosque and it was unbelievable. I saw in the main room on the right-hand side more than 20 people, some of them dead, some screaming.
“I saw on the floor hundreds of bullet shells. I saw one guy trying to run out and he was shot dead.”
⚡️ Mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand: All the latest updateshttps://t.co/A3KtHUzN1I
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) March 15, 2019
Ramzan Ali, a second witness in Christchurch, said he heard one of the women died.
“The mosque has segments, you know, he shot inside, went to another room, shot there. There is the ladies section, he went and shot them. I just heard one of the ladies died, I am hoping that it is not true,” he said.
Tahir Nawaz, of the International Muslim Association of New Zealand, said they had decided to restrict activities at the mosques.
“The whole community is shocked. They would never have expected anything like this [to happen] in this peaceful country. As a result of that [the attack], we are restricting our activities in the mosque and we are trying to keep safety in our area.”
|Police escort people away from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand [Mark Baker/The Associated Press]|
‘Anger towards Muslims through media’
Muslims account for just one percent of New Zealand’s population, a 2013 census showed.
Media portrayal of Muslims is fueling anger against the community, according to a 2017 academic research in which 16,000 New Zealanders were surveyed.
“Highly educated and leftist-oriented people normally tended to have a positive attitude toward not just Muslims but migrant populations in general,” lead researcher John Shaver, of the University of Otago, told Al Jazeera from Dunedin.
“Our study found that highly educated people, even those on the left, developed anger towards Muslims through the media. The more they watched the news, the more prejudiced they became.”
|Police officers inspect the shooting site as dead body of a victim is seen on the ground behind of the car in front of Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand [Anadolu Agency]|
He was, however, careful to add that New Zealand is a multi-cultural society which is accepting of all groups. “There have been only a handful of incidents in which Muslims were harassed or their properties vandalised.
“Things here are not like they are in Australia, the US or the West,” he said.
Overwhelmingly, Shaver said New Zealand media tends to absorb content generated by US and European news outlets without providing context.
“In the Western media, the focus is only on the conflicts in the Middle East,” he said.
“I don’t know if i’m going to be feeling safe walking by myself wearing my headscarf.” – Christchurch resident
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) March 15, 2019
He went on to say that there is very little coverage in the New Zealand media of the Muslim population in country which is very diverse and has a history of more than 100 years.
“Instead of focusing on the domestic Muslim population, the media focuses on violence and looks at the community from a western media lens,” he said.
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 neighbour.
|A man reacts as he speaks on a mobile phone near a mosque in central Christchurch [Mark Baker/ The Associated Press]|