Shooting reported at multiple mosques in New Zealand's Christchurch; mass casualties feared

CHRISTCHURCH - Armed police in New Zealand swarmed central Christchurch on Friday (March 15) amid reports of a shooting at multiple mosques in the South Island city, and witnesses told media of dozens of people being shot. 

At least six people are believed to have been killed and police are urging residents to stay indoors, the NZ Herald reported.

A dead body has been seen lying near Al Noor Mosque in central Christchurch and a second gunman has been seen near Linwood mosque, the newspaper said. Shooting has also been reported at the Christchurch Mosque on Deans Ave, Stuff.co website said.

There are reports of a third active shooting unfolding outside Christchurch Hospital, the reports added.

People in centre of the city should stay indoors, police said, but did not confirm any casualty.  

Police commissioner Mike Bush said all schools in the city had been placed in lockdown in response to “a serious ongoing firearms incident”. 

“Police urge anyone in central Christchurch to stay off the streets and report any suspicious behaviour,” he said in a statement.

The Guardian is reporting police as saying there is a bomb on Strickland Street, about 3km from the Al Noor Mosque. It said the bomb is located inside a beige Subaru that has crashed on the street.

"You're not safe here, there's a bomb in that car," a senior police officer told reporter Eleanor Ainge Roy.

A man, who would not give his name, said he was praying in the Christchurch Mosque when he heard the shooting start, reported Stuff news website.

He managed to escape, but saw his wife lying dead on the footpath outside. "My wife is dead," he said, wailing. His head was supported by other Muslim men who prayed for him.

Another man was cited by Stuff as saying he saw children being shot. Dozens of people were shot by a man wearing military uniform, who emptied at least two magazines. "There were bodies all over me," the man said.

Witness Len Peneha was reported by the Guardian as saying he saw a man dressed in black enter the Al Noor mosque and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running from the mosque in terror.

He says he also saw the gunman flee before emergency services arrived. Peneha says he went into the mosque to try and help: “I saw dead people everywhere.”

Another man who was in Al Noor Mosque told NZ Herald it was absolutely full for noon prayers. He believed many have been killed.

ESPN Cricinfo reporter Mohammed Isam said members of the Bangladesh cricket team, who are due to play a Test match in Christchurch tomorrow escaped from the Al Noor mosque.  “They ran back through Hagley Park back to the Oval,” he tweeted. 

Bangladeshi cricketer, Tamim Iqbal Khan, has tweeted that the “entire team got saved from active shooters”. 

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Oakford Close resident Robert Weatherhead, who took in people who escaped from the mosque, told NZ Herald they described the gunman as a white man aged 30s or 40s and wearing a uniform, but he had not been able to ascertain what the uniform was.

"[They said] 'he had a lot of magazines strapped to his legs'," Weatherhead said.

Linwood Dental Centre practice manager Janine Richmond said she heard about 20 gunshots come from the Linwood Mosque about 1.45pm. She said armed offenders squad (AOS) members with dogs came in and searched the clinic, which is about 50 metres from the mosque, shortly after. 

"They [AOS] have told us to stay here because it's not safe," she told Stuff.co. "We can't leave and we've been told to stay in a room and stay away from the windows."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cancelled her events for the rest of the day after the shooting and will address the media in the next hour. 

Reports of the shooting happened as young protesters were gathering in Christchurch and cities around the world to demand action on climate change. 

Police have cleared Cathedral Square, where thousands of children were participating in the rally, according to Stuff.co. Fifty to 60 children have been kept inside the Christchurch City Council building on Hereford St. They had been visiting the council as part of Friday's action against climate change. The council building has been placed in lockdown.

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Christchurch Hospital, which is about 2km from the mosques, is in lockdown, reported the Guardian. A hospital spokesman said some shooting victims were being treated at the emergency department but he could not provide numbers.

“We don’t know the detail at this time,” he told the Guardian. “The whole campus, including the building I’m in, is in lockdown, we are not venturing outside – that’s staff, patients and visitors.”

Muslim Association of Marlborough chairman Zayd Blissett said he found out about the shooting from a text sent by the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) at 2.04pm, saying "50 shot" during Friday prayers in Christchurch.

"I'm just heartbroken. In fact I'm sitting here crying," he said. "This is New Zealand. This can't happen here."

A man in the mosque at the time, who would not give his name, was reported as saying there were "bodies all over me". He said the gunman came in with an automatic gun and emptied at least two magazines.

Ahmad Al-Mahmoud, 37, described the shooter as white-skinned, blond, quite short and wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest, reported Stuff. He and others broke a window in a door to escape from the mosque. Prayers started at 1.30pm and the gunman came in about 10 minutes later, when everyone was on their knees praying, he said.

The gunman let off dozens, if not hundreds of rounds, he said.

Armed police were also trying to clear Deans Ave and Hagley Park. A large number of police were also reportedly at Christchurch Hospital.

About 20 armed police are also clearing buildings in Linwood, including Eastgate Mall, which will be closed for the rest of the day. 

SHOCKED AND HORRIFIED

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel said she was "shocked beyond words" by the shootings.

"I would never have expected anything like this to happen in Christchurch, I'd never expect this to happen in New Zealand," she said. "I am getting messages from around the country, and from around the world. I know that everyone is shocked".

Dalziel said she was not in a position to comment on the shootings themselves.

She said all civic buildings including the council headquarters, public library and art gallery were in lockdown. She asked people to heed police advice to keep out of the central city, and to stay safe inside a building if they were already in the central city.

Amy Adams, a member of parliament from Christchurch, tweeted: "Horrified to hear of Christchurch mosque shootings. There is never a justification for that sort of hatred." 

Christchurch, with about 388,000 residents, is the biggest city on New Zealand’s South Island, hugging the Pacific Ocean coast.  

Muslims account for just over 1 per cent of New Zealand’s population, a 2013 census showed.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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