At least 49 were killed in an attack on two New Zealand mosques on Friday by a gunman the authorities said professed white nationalist views, in the deadliest case of rightwing terrorism since 77 people were murdered in 2011 by an anti-Muslim extremist in Norway.
A 28-year-old Australian has been charged with murder in Christchurch. A manifesto by a man claiming responsibility for the shootings said he had been inspired by Anders Breivik’s 2011 Norway attack and a 2015 shooting of a black church in South Carolina that killed nine.
“It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” said Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, adding that two others were also being held. “These are people who I would describe as having extremist views that have absolutely no place in New Zealand, and in fact have no place in the world.”
Police and officials described the shooting as well planned, adding that two bombs attached to suspects’ vehicles were defused before they detonated. They said the gunman produced a 17-minute video, filmed while apparently carrying out the attacks during Friday prayers at the mosques. In addition to the 49 killed, at least 48 were left wounded.
The attack is the bloodiest of what terrorism monitors describe as a rising tide of rightwing violence worldwide, coming just five months after the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead. It spurred outrage worldwide, with US President Donald Trump calling it a “horrible massacre” and Pope Francis denouncing it as a “senseless acts of violence”.
“When people are murdered solely because of their religion, this is an attack on us all,” said Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister.
In Christchurch, witnesses described dozens of bodies strewn in and around the attack sites, particularly at the Al Noor Mosque, where at least 41 of the 49 were killed. Children’s cries could be heard on the video recorded by the gunman and authorities said the young were among those wounded.
“I would never have expected anything like this to happen in Christchurch, I’d never expect this to happen in New Zealand,” said Lianne Dalziel, the city’s mayor.
The shooting has again cast a spotlight on the role social media has played in spreading white nationalist and extremist views. In addition to posting the manifesto on Facebook, the shooter streamed the video of the attack on the network, which quickly spread to other sites, including YouTube and Twitter.
Facebook said it deleted the gunman’s accounts after being alerted by police, but the video was still widely available hours after the attack.
The Twitter account of the self-proclaimed gunman included pictures of a gun said to have been used in the shooting. It was covered in white lettering, featuring the names of others who had committed race or religion-based killings, as well as Cyrillic, Armenian and Georgian references to historical figures and events and the phrase: “Here’s Your Migration Compact”.
Australian media, citing government officials, identified the gunman as Brenton Tarrant from the city of Grafton on Australia’s east coast. Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, described him as an “extremist, rightwing violent terrorist”.
Ahmad Al-Mahmoud, who was in one of the Christchurch mosques, told the Stuff.com news website that the shooter was wearing army-style camouflage clothing and a helmet and that he carried a large gun with lots of ammunition.
“He came through and started shooting everyone in the mosque, like everywhere. And they had to smash the door, the glass in the small door, and everyone tried to get out — so we were trying to get everyone to run away from that area,” he said.
Mike Bush, New Zealand’s police commissioner, said investigators were still trying to determine whether the gunman had accomplices; it remains unclear whether the two other people detained, who were also armed, were involved in the plot, he said.
“There have been huge acts of bravery to apprehend these people, but let’s not assume that the threat is over,” Mr Bush said.
Police would not discuss the motives behind the attacks but they asked all mosques in New Zealand to shut, and advised people against visiting them.
Security experts said the incident fitted the model of previous attacks by far-right extremists in the US and elsewhere, where small cells of perpetrators carry out co-ordinated operations.
“The manifesto that was published by the gunman and the live streaming of the attacks bears the hallmarks of classic rightwing terrorism and white supremacism,” said Paul Buchanan, director of 36th-Parallel, a consultancy focusing on geopolitics and strategic assessments.
He said the method of attack bore some similarities to the 2011 Norway shootings by Breivik.
There have been few mass shootings in New Zealand, with the worst incident in 1990 when gunman David Gray killed 13 people in a rampage after a dispute with a neighbour in a small town near Dunedin.
Muslim leaders responded in horror to the shootings. “This is the worst event in recent New Zealand history. We are shattered. We are devastated,” Hazim Arafeh, a former president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, told state broadcaster Radio New Zealand.
Members of the Bangladeshi cricket team were in the vicinity of the shooting but the team coach said all players were safe.
Christchurch, home to about 400,000 people, is New Zealand’s third-largest city.
Additional reporting by David Bond in London, Edward White in Taipei and agencies