49 dead in New Zealand mosque shootings

49 dead in New Zealand mosque shootings
PHOTO: AFP

A "right-wing extremist" armed with semi-automatic weapons rampaged through two mosques in the quiet New Zealand city of Christchurch during afternoon prayers Friday, killing 49 worshippers and wounding dozens more.

The attack, thought to be the deadliest against Muslims in the West in modern times, was immediately dubbed terrorism by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as she guided a shocked nation on one of its "darkest days."

"From what we know, it does appear to have been well planned," she said, adding that in addition to the dead another 20 people were seriously injured.

The gunman at one mosque was an Australian-born citizen, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in Sydney, describing him as "an extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist".

The 28-year-old man has been arrested and charged with murder. He is set to appear at the Christchurch District Court early Saturday. Two other men remain in custody, although their link to the attack is unknown.

Two IEDS (improvised explosive devices) were also found and neutralised by the military, police said.

A Palestinian man who was in one of the mosques said he saw someone being shot in the head.

"I heard three quick shots, then after about 10 seconds it started again. It must have been an automatic -- no one could pull a trigger that quick," the man, who did not wish to be named, told AFP.

"Then people started running out. Some were covered in blood," he said, adding that he joined the fleeing crowd and managed to escape.

Local media reported at least nine people were dead.

Shooters go on rampage at 2 Christchurch mosques, 40 killed

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    Attacks on two Christchurch mosques left at least 40 dead Friday, with one gunman - identified as an Australian extremist -- apparently livestreaming the assault that triggered the lockdown of the New Zealand city.

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    Emergency services personnel transport a stretcher carrying a person at a hospital, after reports that several shots had been fired, in central Christchurch, New Zealand March 15, 2019.

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    AOS (Armed Offenders Squad) member following a shooting at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15, 2019.

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    A police car blocks the car of a suspect following shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand March 15, 2019, in this still image obtained from a social media video.

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    An image grab from TV New Zealand taken on March 15, 2019 shows New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressing the country on television following the mosque shooting in Christchurch.

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    Flowers are placed on the front steps of the Wellington Masjid mosque in Kilbirnie in Wellington on March 15, 2019

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    Police cordon off the area in front of the Masjid al Noor mosque after a shooting incident in Christchurch on March 15, 2019.

The attacker live-streamed footage of him going room-to-room, victim to victim, shooting the wounded from close range as they struggled to crawl away.

New Zealand police described it as "extremely distressing" and urged web users not to share it.

A manifesto had also been posted online on accounts linked to the same Facebook page, suggesting the attack was racially motivated.

A social media account had also posted a number of pictures of a semi-automatic weapon covered in the names of historical figures, many of whom were involved in the killing of Muslims.

Police, who initially imposed a city-wide lockdown, sent armed officers to a number of scenes.

'Darkest day'

An ashen-faced Ardern told reporters the attacks had been "an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence".

"It is clear that this is one of New Zealand's darkest days," she said.

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The two known targets were the Masjid al Noor in central Christchurch, and a second mosque in suburban Linwood.

One witness told stuff.co.nz he was praying when he heard shooting -- and then saw his wife lying dead on the footpath outside when he fled.

Another man said he saw children being shot.

"There were bodies all over," he said.

An eyewitness told Radio New Zealand that he heard shots fired and four people were lying on the ground, with "blood everywhere".

Police warned Muslims all over the country not to visit mosques "anywhere in New Zealand". Friday is Islam's holy day.

Christchurch city council offered a helpline for parents looking for kids attending a mass climate change rally nearby.

The Bangladesh cricket team -- which had been in Christchurch for a test match against New Zealand that was later cancelled -- all escaped without injury.

A spokesman said the attack happened as some of players got off a team bus and were about to enter the mosque.

"They are safe. But they are mentally shocked. We have asked the team to stay confined in the hotel," he told AFP.

Mass shootings are rare in New Zealand, which tightened its gun laws to restrict access to semi-automatic rifles in 1992, two years after a mentally ill man shot dead 13 people in the South Island town of Aramoana.

However, anyone over 16 can apply for a standard firearms licence after doing a safety course, which allows them to purchase and use a shotgun unsupervised.

Christchurch, a relatively small city in the south of New Zealand, hit global headlines in 2011 when it was struck by a deadly earthquake.

Dozens of people died and the city's historic cathedral was toppled in the disaster.

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