It was the darkest day for Muslims across the world as a “right-wing extremist” armed with semi-automatic weapons rampaged through two mosques in the quiet New Zealand city of Christchurch during afternoon prayers on 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.
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. He allegedly published a racist “manifesto” on social media before the attack, featuring conspiracy theories about Europeans being displaced, and details of two years of preparation and radicalisation leading up to the shootings.
A 28-year-old Australian-born 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.
“It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” said Ardern. “From what we know, it does appear to have been well planned.” Two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were found in a car and neutralised by the military, police said.
Speaking in Sydney, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the gunman as “an extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist”.
His two targets were the Masjid Al Noor Mosque, where 41 people died, and a second, smaller mosque in the suburb of Linwood, where seven more died. The remaining victim succumbed in hospital.
The dead were said to include women and children. Around 48 people were treated for gunshot wounds at Christchurch Hospital, including young children, with injuries ranging from critical to minor.
The survivors included 17 members of Bangladesh’s cricket team, whose game against New Zealand on Saturday has been postponed, and a Palestinian man who fled for his life after seeing someone being shot in the head.
New Zealand police described the footage shot by the gunman as “extremely distressing” and warned web users that they could be liable for up to 10 years in jail for sharing such “objectionable content”.
In addition to the footage, a number of pictures were posted to a social media account showing a semi-automatic weapon covered in the names of historical figures, many of whom were involved in the killing of Muslims.
The attack has shocked New Zealanders, who are used to seeing around 50 murders a year in the entire country of 4.8 million and pride themselves on living in a secure and welcoming place.