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(BBC) — Forty-nine people have been killed and at least 20 wounded in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the incident as a terrorist attack and one of New Zealand’s “darkest days”.
A man in his late twenties was charged with murder and will appear in court on Saturday morning, police confirmed.
Two other men and one woman were detained nearby and firearms seized, Police Commissioner Mike Bush said.
He said one of those detained was later released, while officers were working to understand if the other two were connected.
Police also found multiple explosive devices in a car belonging to one of the suspects.
The attack, which came around the time people were attending the mosques for Friday prayers, was the deadliest in the nation’s history.
A gunman live-streamed footage of his rampage to Facebook, filmed with a head-mounted camera. The footage showed him firing indiscriminately at men, women and children from close range inside the Al-Noor mosque.
Police called on the public not to share the “extremely distressing” footage online. Facebook said it had removed the gunman’s Facebook and Instagram accounts and was working to remove any copies of the footage.
The suspect who was charged appeared to have published a manifesto before the attack outlining his intentions, in which he identified himself as a 28-year-old Australian citizen and espoused far right and anti-immigrant ideology.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the man as an “extremist, right-wing” terrorist. Police Commissioner Bush confirmed that the man was not known in advance to either New Zealand or Australian security services.
New Zealand police said on Twitter that officers were in attendance at a property in the city of Dunedin in connection with the attack in Christchurch.
“It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” Prime Minister Ardern said in a press conference.
What do we know at this point?
The first report of an attack came from the Al Noor mosque, located in central Christchurch. Witnesses told local media they ran for their lives, and saw people bleeding on the ground outside the building.
A second mosque in the suburb of Linwood was evacuated, but there were fewer details from that site. Police also defused “a number of IEDs [explosive devices] attached to vehicles”, Mr Bush said.
Authorities advised all mosques in the city to shut down until further notice. Armed police were also seen at Papanui High School in Christchurch, which was cordoned off.
Mr Bush said a number of firearms had been recovered from both shooting sites, and explosive devices were found in a car belonging to one of the suspects.
What happened at the mosques?
The sequence of events remains unclear and has mostly come from the gunman’s own video or via eyewitness reports to local media. The gunman’s footage showed him driving up to the Al Noor mosque, before taking weapons from his car, entering the mosque and firing.
One unnamed survivor from the mosque told TV New Zealand he saw the gunman shoot a man directly in the chest. The attacker reportedly targeted the men’s prayer room in the mosque, then moved to the women’s room.
“What I did was basically just waiting and praying, God please, let this guy run out of bullets,” the witness said. “He came to this side, he shot this side, he went to another room and went to the ladies’ section and shot them. I just heard one of the ladies has died.”
A Palestinian man who asked not to be named told the AFP news agency he heard rapid gunfire and saw a man shot in the head.
“I heard three quick shots, then after about 10 seconds it started again – it must have been an automatic, no one could pull a trigger that quick,” he said. “Then people started running out. Some were covered in blood.”
A second mosque in the suburb of Linwood was also evacuated. The police commissioner said “multiple fatalities” were recorded at two locations.
How have authorities responded?
Multiple casualties were brought to Christchurch Hospital where there was a heavy police presence. A spokeswoman said Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) had activated its mass casualty plan, the New Zealand news site Stuff.co.nz reported.
Police earlier cleared Cathedral Square, where thousands of children had been holding a rally for action on climate change.
Police Commissioner Bush said: “Police are responding with its full capability to manage the situation, but the risk environment remains extremely high. Police recommend that residents across Christchurch remain off the streets and indoors until further notice.”
A lockdown on all schools in Christchurch was lifted, and parents told could collect their children.
Cricket team escapes attack
The Bangladesh national cricket team appeared to have narrowly escaped the shooting. A reporter following the team, which was due to play New Zealand in a now-cancelled test match on Saturday, tweeted that the team had “escaped from a mosque near Hagley Park where there were active shooters”.
Player Tamim Iqbal tweeted that the “entire team got saved from active shooters”.
Bangladesh Cricket Board spokesman Jalal Yunus said most of the team had gone to mosque by bus and were about to go inside when the incident took place.
“They are safe. But they are mentally shocked. We have asked the team to stay confined in the hotel,” he told the AFP news agency.
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