Armed attacks Friday on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killed at least 49 people and injured dozens of others in what authorities called an act of terrorism.
Four people – three men and one woman – were in custody Friday evening, New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said. One of them, reported to be a 28-year-old Australian man with extreme anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views, has been charged with murder and will appear in court on Saturday.
The attacks stunned a small nation known mostly for its friendly people and scenic countryside where parts of the “Lord of the Rings” movies were filmed. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called it “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”
Ardern initially said Friday afternoon that 40 people had been killed in the mass shootings. New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush later said that the death toll had risen to 49, with most of the dead – 41 worshipers – gunned down at the Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch during Friday prayers. Several more people were killed at another mosque in the Linwood neighborhood across town.
Bush said the attacks began around 1:40 p.m. and were “very well-planned.” Police found two improvised explosive devices in vehicles as the shootings unfolded. One device was defused quickly. Schools were temporarily put on lockdown across Christchurch, which is the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, with a population of about 400,000. Police also advised all mosques in the country to lock their doors.
“This is and will be one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” Ardern said. “It is clear that this can now only be described as a terror attack.”
She said that three of the four people arrested were connected to the attack. “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,” Ardern said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that one of them was an Australian citizen and described the man as an “extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist.”
The attackers are believed to have worn body cameras and to have filmed as they fired. Footage was available on Facebook Live, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. New Zealand police said that “extremely distressing footage” of the shooting was streamed online in real time. They asked that the links not be shared and wrote on Twitter that they were “working to have any footage removed.”
Ardern repeated that appeal at her press conference. “My message would be that we should not be perpetuating, sharing, giving oxygen to this act of violence, and the message that’s set behind it,” she said. “I ask people, don’t share them.”
YouTube tweeted that it was “working vigilantly to remove any violent footage” from the platform.
The New York Times reported that someone appearing to be the gunman posted links to a hate-filled manifesto on Twitter and 8chan, where he also posted a link to his Facebook page, saying he would soon livestream the shooting. A 17-minute video includes multiple instances of the gunman firing on victims inside the mosque.
“New Zealand Police alerted us to a video on Facebook shortly after the livestream commenced and we quickly removed both the shooter’s Facebook and Instagram accounts and the video,” a Facebook spokeswoman told CNN.
Australian TV networks, including Ten Daily and Sky News Australia, continued to broadcast footage from the shooters’ cameras, as well as stills from the incident, for several hours. The networks said that they had edited the footage or stopped it before the gunmen entered the mosque. “Sky News in line with other broadcasters ran heavily edited footage that did not show the shootings, or the victims,” the channel said in a statement to the Guardian.
YouTuber PewDiePie was evidently praised by the alleged gunman, and the YouTube personality, Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, posted a statement to Twitter condemning the attacks.
The Los Angeles Police Department tweeted that, while it had no indication that any related attacks would be carried out in the city, it would increase patrolling around L.A. mosques “out of an abundance of caution.”
Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe, who was born in New Zealand, was among the first Hollywood celebrities to react online. “40 dead in NZ. Senseless, pointless, cruel deaths. My heart breaks for all the families involved, and for the beautiful people of New Zealand to whose heart this pain will attach, for a long time. Kia Kaha,” he wrote on Twitter.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California, and star of multiple violent films, added his condolences. “My heart goes out to the victims, their families and the people of New Zealand. This a horrific act of terror, but please know that the world stands with you. I stand with you,” Schwarzenegger tweeted.