A right-wing extremist who rampaged through two mosques in the quiet New Zealand city of Christchurch killing 49 worshippers is due to appear in court on murder charges Saturday.
Forty-two people are still being treated in hospital for injuries, including a four year old child, after an attack thought to be the deadliest directed against Muslims in the West in modern times.
The 28-year-old Australia-born suspect will be charged with murder in a court appearance that police said would be held behind closed doors for security reasons.
Outside the court, guarded by heavily armed police in body armour, the sons of 71-year-old Afghan man Daoud Nabi demanded justice.
After travelling the world “he stopped in New Zealand and said ‘here’s a slice of paradise’,” Omar Nabi told AFP. “It’s outrageous, the feeling is outrageous. It’s beyond imagination.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Saturday the victims were from across the Muslim world, with Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia rendering consular assistance.
She has called this a terrorist attack and said the shooter — who was not on any watchlist and did not have a criminal record — had legally purchased the firearms he used: two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action gun.
“The offender was in possession of a gun licence” obtained in November 2017, and he started purchasing the weapons the following month, she said.
“While work is being done as to the chain of events that led to both the holding of this gun licence, and the possession of these weapons, I can tell you one thing right now — our gun laws will change,” she vowed.
The suspect, who was believed to be a personal fitness instructor, documented his radicalisation and two years of preparations in a lengthy, meandering and conspiracy filled far-right “manifesto”.
He live-streamed footage of himself going room-to-room, victim to victim, shooting the wounded from close range as they struggled to crawl away in the main Christchurch mosque.
Two other people remain in custody, although their link to the attack is unknown. A third person who was earlier arrested was said to be a member of the public with a firearm who was trying to help.
Police warned New Zealanders Saturday to remain vigilant, saying there was “no guarantee the risk is limited” to the Christchurch region.
Two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were found in a car and neutralised by the military, while police raided a home in Dunedin, where Ardern said the suspect was based.
“We will be looking closely to build a picture of any of the individuals involved and all of their activities prior to this horrific event,” police added in a statement.
Tributes to the victims poured in from around the world.
The shooter’s two targets were the Masjid al Noor mosque, where 41 people were killed, 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.
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.
“I heard three quick shots, then after about 10 seconds it started again,” said the man, who did not wish to be named.
“Then people started running out. Some were covered in blood,” he told AFP.
– Mosque warning –
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 — which AFP has verified, but is not distributing — 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.
Police warned Muslims across the country not to visit mosques “anywhere in New Zealand” in the wake of the Christchurch attacks. Friday is Islam’s holy day.
– ‘Bodies all over’ –
The attack shocked the local Muslim population, many of whom had come to New Zealand as refugees.
One witness told news website Stuff 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.
At least two Jordanians were among the dead, according to that country’s foreign minister, while Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman Mohammed Faisal said five citizens of his country were missing.
Mass shootings are very 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 on New Zealand’s south island, hit global headlines in 2011 when it was struck by a deadly earthquake, killing more than 180 people.