The main suspect in the shootings at two New Zealand mosques was charged with one count of murder, a day after the attacks that killed 49 people and wounded dozens, prompting the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to vow reform of the country’s gun laws.
Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian citizen, appeared in the Christchurch District Court on Saturday and was remanded without a plea until his next scheduled appearance in the South Island city’s High Court on April 5.
Handcuffed and wearing a white prison suit, Tarrant did not speak. His court-appointed lawyer made no application for bail or name suppression.
He was likely to face further charges, police said.
PM Ardern terms it terrorism
The attack, which Ms. Ardern labelled as terrorism, was the worst-ever peacetime mass killing in New Zealand and the country raised its security threat level to the highest.
Tarrant has been identified as a suspected white supremacist, based on his social media activity.
The video showed a man driving to the Al Noor mosque, entering it and shooting randomly at people with a semi-automatic rifle with high-capacity magazines. Worshippers, possibly dead or wounded, lay on the floor, the video showed.
At one stage, the shooter returns to his car, changes weapons, re-enters the mosque and again begins shooting. The camera attached to his head follows the barrel of his weapon like some macabre video game.
Forty-one people were killed at the mosque, seven at a mosque in the Linwood neighbourhood and one died in hospital, police said. Hospital officials said some of the wounded were in a critical condition.
‘Shooting everyone in the mosque’
One man who said he was at the mosque told media the gunman burst in as worshippers were kneeling for prayers. “He had a big gun… He came and started shooting everyone in the mosque, everywhere,” said Ahmad Al-Mahmoud. He said he and others escaped by breaking through a glass door.
Police said the shooter took seven minutes to travel to the second mosque in the suburb of Linwood, where seven people were killed. No images have emerged from the second mosque.
Tarrant was arrested in a car which, police said, was carrying improvised explosive devices, 36 minutes after they were first called.
“The offender was mobile, there were two other firearms in the vehicle that the offender was in, and it absolutely was his intention to continue with his attack,” Ms. Ardern told reporters in Christchurch on Saturday.
It was still unclear whether any other shooters were involved in the attacks.
Two other people were in custody and police said they were working to understand their involvement. None of those arrested had a criminal history or were on watch lists in New Zealand or Australia.
Armed police were deployed at several locations in all cities, unusual in a country that has had low levels of gun violence.
Gun laws to be changed
Ms. Ardern said the main suspect was a licenced gun owner, who used five weapons during his rampage, including two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns.
The authorities were working to find out how he had obtained the weapons and a licence, and how he was able to enter the country to carry out the attacks, she said.
“I can tell you one thing right now, our gun laws will change,” Ms. Ardern told reporters. A ban on semi-automatic weapons would be considered, she said.
There was heavy police presence at the hospital where the families of the more than 40 wounded had gathered. Eleven people remained in intensive care, hospital authorities said.
Funerals were planned on Saturday for some of the victims, several of whom were born overseas.
Dozens of people laid flowers at cordons near both mosques in the city, which is still rebuilding after a devastating earthquake in 2011 killed almost 200 people.
Leaders around the world expressed sorrow and disgust at the attacks, with some deploring the demonisation of Muslims.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who condemned the attacks as a “horrible massacre”, was praised by the accused gunman in a manifesto posted online as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”.
Asked by a reporter in Washington if he thought white nationalism is a rising threat around the world, Mr. Trump said: “I don’t really. I think its a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. I guess if you look at what happened in New Zealand perhaps that’s a case, I don’t know enough about it yet.”
Ms. Ardern, who flew to Christchurch on Saturday, said she had spoken to Mr. Trump, who had asked how he could help.
“My message was sympathy and love for all Muslim communities,” she said she told him.
Concern over targeting of Muslims
Political and Islamic leaders across Asia and Middle East voiced concern over the targeting of Muslims.
“I blame these increasing terror attacks on the current Islamophobia post-9/11,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan posted on social media. “1.3 billion Muslims have collectively been blamed for any act of terror.”
Facebook said that having been alerted by police it had deleted the gunman’s accounts “shortly after the live-stream commenced”. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all said they had taken steps to remove copies of the videos.
Ms. Ardern said she had asked the authorities to look into whether there was any activity on social media or elsewhere that could have alerted them ahead of the attack.
The visiting Bangladesh cricket team was arriving for prayers at one of the mosques when the shooting started but all members were safe, a team coach told Reuters.
Muslims account for just over 1% of New Zealand’s population, a 2013 census showed, most of whom were born overseas.
Portal raises NZ$1 million
A website set up for victims had raised more than NZ$1 million ($684,000) in less than a day, and social media was flooded with messages of shock, sympathy and solidarity.
One image shared widely was of a cartoon kiwi, the country’s national bird, weeping. Another showed a pair of figures, one in a headscarf, embracing. “This is your home and you should have been safe here” the caption read.