(WELLINGTON, New Zealand) Forty-nine people were killed on Friday when extremist gunmen targeted worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, in what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”
“It is clear that this can only be described as a terrorist attack,” Ardern said.
New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said 41 people were killed in the Deans Avenue Mosque and seven others were killed in the Linwood mosque in central Christchurch. One victim died at Christchurch Hospital.
Police apprehended four suspects, but only three were connected with the shootings, she said. Explosives found attached to the suspects’ vehicles were disarmed.
A 28-year-old man has been charged with murder and is set to appear in Christchurch court on Saturday.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one of the suspects was an Australian citizen, and Ardern confirmed that one stated they were Australian-born.
“We, New Zealand, we were not a target because we are a safe harbor for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism,” Arden said.
“We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it.
“You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you,” she told the attackers. “I am not going to let this change New Zealand’s profile, none of us should.”
Ardern said none of the suspects has been on any watch list for their extremist views.
She also urged people to stop spreading a 17-minute video that one of the gunmen live-streamed during the attack and posted on social media.
“What all of us can at least do is make sure we do not share, spread, or actively engage in that message of hate,” Ardern said.
The video shows a white man in camouflage and black clothing driving to what appears to be the Al Noor Mosque, with nationalist Serbian music playing in the car and multiple rapid-fire weapons seen in the passenger’s seat. The guns have writing on them including one featuring the name “Ebba Akerlund,” an 11-year-old girl who was killed in a 2017 terrorist attack in Sweden.
After entering the mosque, the man appears to shoot at least two dozen men in the building as well as at least two people in the street. The video is filmed in the style of a first-person shooter computer game.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said Friday in Belgrade that his country had nothing to do with the shootings.
“Serbia has no connection with it, we aren’t asking anyone to avenge any Serb victim in the world,” Dacic told a news conference.
“The man (in the video) has nothing to do with Serbia,” he said. “I don’t know who could be his inspiration.”
In a white supremacist manifesto released under the same name as the footage uploader on other social media sites, a person claimed to be a 28-year-old Australian man from a working-class family.
Ardern added that the threat level in New Zealand has been moved from “low” to “high.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan were among the first international leaders to condemn the attacks.
Erdogan described them as “the latest example of rising racism and Islamophobia,” while Khan blamed “the current Islamophobia post-9/11 where Islam and 1.3 billion Muslims have collectively been blamed for any act of terror by a Muslim.”
“This has been done deliberately to also demonize legitimate Muslim political struggles,” Khan tweeted.
France’s interior minister responded by saying that security at the country’s mosques was being stepped up, adding that “surveillance” and “patrols” would be carried out at places of worship.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan made a similar announcement, saying that police in the British capital “are stepping up reassurance patrols around mosques and increasing engagement with communities of all faiths.”
After an initial lockdown on schools across the South Island city, police in the early evening said it had been lifted.
“We would like to reassure members of the public that there is a large police presence in the city and the safety of the community is our priority,” they said in a statement.
Police said that 48 people were being treated for injuries related to the attacks.
“All appointments have been cancelled this afternoon, and no staff or patients are to enter or leave the building,” the hospital said in a statement announcing a lockdown earlier on Friday.
Several hundred people had been at the Deans Avenue mosque for Friday prayers when the attack began, witnesses told local media.
Ahmad Al-Mahmoud told the Stuff news website the shooter was white-skinned, blond, quite short and wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest. He reportedly had an automatic gun and emptied at least two magazines.
Farhaan Farheez was in the Linwood Mosque praying with about 100 others when the shooting started there.
“I didn’t know what a gun sounded like,” he told Stuff. “It is customary when we are praying not to pay attention to the outside world … Gunshots kept happening and people kept praying.”
“The whole mosque was filled with blood and dead bodies. It was like a battlefield,” he added.
None of the victims have been identified by New Zealand authorities, but Turkey, Jordan and Indonesia have all claimed that several of their nationals were either killed or injured in the attacks.
Mass shooting are extremely rare in New Zealand: The last was in 1990 when David Gray shot dead 13 people in the Aramoana massacre.
-By Jule Scherer, Deutsche Presse-Agentur