Forty -nine people have been shot dead and 20 injured in attacks at two mosques during Friday afternoon prayers in Christchurch in what is the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was “one of New Zealand’s darkest days” as police uncovered multiple explosive devices attached to cars and commissioner Mike Bush urged all mosques across the country to close their doors for the time being.
Four people were taken into custody – three men and one woman – for what Ardern described as a terrorist attack. One person was later released. Ardern condemned the ideology of the people behind the shootings, saying: “You may have chosen us but we utterly reject and condemn you.
New Zealand’s threat level has been raised from low to high and none of the suspects were on terrorism watchlists, Ardern said.
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison called a “rightwing extremist attack” and said one suspect was Australian-born, without giving further details.
As shots began to ring out, police put the city in lockdown and evacuated nearby climate change protests, with children separate from their relatives looked after by council staff until it was safe.
The deaths occurred at Al Noor mosque on Dean’s Road and the Linwood Islamic Centre on Linwood Avenue, police said. It later emerged 30 were killed at Al Noor mosque and 10 killed at Linwood.
The gunman entered the mosque in central Christchurch and opened fire at 1.40pm local time.
In a statement just after 4pm local time, the police said Christchurch was in lockdown and urged people to stay indoors.
A Christchurch hospital spokesman said some shooting victims were being treated at the emergency department but he could not provide numbers, because the hospital was in lockdown.
The mayor of Christchurch Lianne Dalziel said the city was in shock: “This has come as a bolt from the blue … It just feels like it’s not what would happen in a place like New Zealand.”
Earlier, Ardern said many of those directly affected by the shooting might be migrants to New Zealand.
People call family and friends outside a mosque in central Christchurch in the aftermath of the shooting
“They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us,” she told reporters. “The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand.”
Members of the Bangladesh cricket team, who were outside the Masjid Al Noor when the shootings occurred, escaped unhurt. The team was due to play the final Test match of their NZ tour in Christchurch on Saturday. The game has now been cancelled.
All team members and staff caught up in the incident were able to return safely to their hotel, Bangladesh Cricket confirmed, after taking refuge in the immediate aftermath in the dressing rooms at Hagley Oval.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has urged Australians in Christchurch to follow the instructions of local authorities, but has not changed its travel advice from normal safety precautions.
An estimated 300 people were inside the mosque for Friday prayers. Witness Len Peneha told Associated Press he saw a man dressed in black enter the Al Noor mosque and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running away in terror.
He said he also saw the gunman flee before emergency services arrived. Peneha said he went into the mosque to try to help: “I saw dead people everywhere.”
Another man who was at the mosque told TVNZ he had not seen his wife, who was also in the mosque, since the shooting.
The man, who was in a wheelchair, pushed himself out to the carpark. “It was very peaceful, calm and quiet, as it is when the sermon starts, you could hear a pin drop. Then suddenly the shooting started,” he said.
“I saw about 20-plus people, some were dead, some were screaming. On the left there were 10 plus people, some were dead.”